Fact Vs Fiction, by Dr Tamara Clelford

Todays offering on Guest Post Wednesday, the first of a new series of guest posts I’ll probably manage to put out on Thursday’s, is from a fellow Harvey Duckman writer and tapdancing physicist, Tamara Clelford, who’s has one of those doctorate things that intimidate those of us who developed out education by osmosis. She is also not in anyway scary, and does not spend her time developing interesting ways to murder people with technology, and get away with it…

She is one of the foremost experts in her field professionally, but assures me this is not because she has irradiated most of her peers and buried them in the void floor beneath her lab.

I chose to believe her, it seems safer that way…

FACT V FICTION by Dr Tamara Clelford

I’ve spent most of my life writing about facts in various different forms. Maybe I’m explaining facts to people, finding out new facts and presenting them or paraphrasing facts that other people have found out. Whatever the context I’m very comfortable writing about things that have happened, things that have been proved and presenting them in a report, document, paper, thesis etc. Fiction writing, however, I gladly left behind me when I waved goodbye to my last English class upon finishing my GCSE’s. This was done with the certainty of never returning to writing fiction. Well, that’s one promise I haven’t kept.

If you’ve read my previous guest blog here at the Passing Place you’ll know I wrote my first novel by accident, and indeed I did get into fiction writing on a whimsical whim whilst on holiday. Much to my shock and horror I really enjoyed it and haven’t managed to do as much writing as I would actually like to do. Words I thought I would never say, but we all evolve as life goes on.

I thought today that I’d have a look at my approach to fiction writing, and how it differs from my factual writing and actually why they are actually quite similar.


In factual writing you don’t normally talk about your ‘inspiration’ to write the paper or report you have to write. Normally the inspiration is along the glamorous lines of ‘it’s part of my job’. Well, I suppose if you are a fiction writer who lives off their books this could actually be the same reason there.

There’s normally a reason why you’re writing a factual report, and that is because you have created something new and need to tell people about it. What I create in these contexts I suppose does come from the inspiration to solve a particular problem or to fill a gap by creating a new thing. So, maybe I should use the word inspiration in work as well.

I’m more comfortable talking about inspiration for my fiction stories, even though it’s along a similar line. I’ve found out a fact and thought ‘I wonder how that happened’ or I’ve thought ‘wouldn’t it be fun if I could do x’ and then my brain has gone down a journey to solve that particular problem and out pops a short story or a book.


This is where the big difference is for me.

My factual writing is carefully planned out, I know what I need to explain, how it’s going to be explained and what graphs and equations I need to put in. Each stage is meticulously planned.

Fiction writing, I have a loose overarching idea in my head (for example: What if the takahē were part of a clandestine operation? Why do evil genius’s always wear a polo neck?) and start writing at the beginning and see where I end up.

The thought of planning a novel is as ridiculous to me as not planning a report!


I can hear my friend Katy singing “Let’s start at the vey beginning…………..” well I do and don’t agree with her. I suppose it’s about defining what your beginning is.

Fiction, yes, I think it’s a very good place to start as that’s how you read a book or a short story. Start at the start, end at the end and then do many many rounds of heavy editing to make the middle bit flow between the two.

Factual writing, however, I don’t read in chronological order. I read the abstract, the conclusions and then poke around in the middle to find out more details on the answers and how they were got. So, I write things accordingly. I write the conclusions first, because you already know the answer before you start writing. I then agonise over the abstract, as this is the most difficult bit to write so I start with a draft at this point. I then write the results, then the method and then the introduction. Then I have the fun task of getting the abstract into a good shape. So, I do start at the beginning of where I read, if not the beginning of the piece.


In factual writing you divide the text up with clear and informative section headings. There are no surprises – the results have the results in them and the method the method and so on and so forth.

However, chapter headings are often obscure, funny or misleading. Most of the books I read go for the classic approach of having catch chapter headings such as 1, 2, 3 or if they’re being posh one, two, three. Some of the books I’ve read recently (like Mark’s) have got actual chapter titles and I’ve really enjoyed deciphering them. I’m going to steal that idea and I’m going through the arduous process of adding chapter titles to my book, but I’ve made life easy for myself as I have a theme running through them.


In factual writing you finish your section at the end of the topic when everything is beautifully tied up. In a thesis this could be the end of the chapter, in a report the end of a section and a paper the end of a paragraph the sections just differ in size depending on the size of the overall document. You don’t do cliff hangers to leave the reader in suspense to find out the results of the experiment when they read onto the next section. Apart from anything else that would be pointless as you will have already read the main results in the abstract, so it’s very difficult to build suspense when you’ve already told them the punch line. What you do instead is build a secure coherent argument showing why the results are valid.

In fiction writing it couldn’t be more different. The book summary is obscured to leave the reader in a state of puzzlement, so they want to read the entire book. There is no upfront summary detailing the plot and the baddies, if you’re lucky there’s some hidden pointers in the text as you go through it. You also don’t tie up a section of the story at the end of a chapter, cliff hangers are king and almost mandatory. There’s no point writing a book where you have been left with no urgent reason to have to read the next chapter at 3am when you need to be up by 7am.


For 4 glorious years of my life I was worked on a UNIX based computer. It was bliss and I loved it, but then I moved away from academia and it’s really difficult to function in the outside world without access to normal programmes. So, when I started working for myself, I decided to create the best computer set up I could and do a mix of the two and I started writing in LaTeX again. This is a great typesetting programme for producing documents with equations and images where you actually want them. It’s like a very high level programming language where I can just write things like \[WACC = K_e \times \frac{E}{E + D} + K_d (1 – t) \times \frac{D}{E + D}\] to give me a lovely looking equation rather than having to battle getting them into word. It’s bought me more pleasure and calm than it really should have.

However, writing fiction is probably not the best idea in LaTeX as the functionality doesn’t help and you can only produce pdf outputs. I actually write my fiction stuff in word at the moment, as this is probably the easiest format to transfer text in that has an inbuilt spell checker. I do know that some people write their work in specific writing programmes, I’ve had a look at a few of them but they don’t fit how I write fiction. As I’ve already told you there’s no planning involved so having to have some idea of what I’m doing ahead of time to just be able to write your book just doesn’t work for me.


In academic scientific writing the truth is defined by you explaining your experimental process in sufficient detail that someone else would be able to re-create your experiment and they should get the same answers (within the measurement error). You can’t make stuff up or exaggerate, well I should say shouldn’t as people do try.

However, there are no such restraints in fiction writing. I like to start in a basis of a true story, something that has happened to me or I’ve read or observed, and then just take it further and further down the line so you very quickly end in a world of fantasy so you can explore all those ‘what-ifs’. Where the fantasy bit takes you can be different, it can be into a future world, a past world, a crazed situation or whatever your mind can think up as there are no limits.


Tamara is a star trek loving, pukeko obsessed, tap dancing, Queen listening, lord of low frequency and high-priestess of high frequency physics geek. Having worked in a variety of technical roles, both normal and clandestine, she is now a consultant working on physics based problems and data science. This latest incarnation has opened new doors to a wide variety of work and interests, like: an eclectic blog, writing a novel, encouraging people into physics, and teaching people how to code and do data science.

Follow Tamara on social media: @SwamphenEnts or if you want to see her technical life or learn to code go to swamphen.co.uk

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