Sunday, 1 February 2009

The Hows and Whys of Historical Fiction

I mentioned the other day that I’d had an interesting time thinking about Testament from a technical point of view, so that I could talk about it cogently to the folks up at Waverton.
I believe I mentioned plot, character, theme and language.
So, while I’ve got a few minutes to think about the blog, while it snows outside, I thought I’d jot a few things down.

I thought I’d start with a few thoughts on research.

I do two basic kinds of research for my historical fiction – the general kind where I immerse myself in the period as much as I can so that I get a feel for how the people and places I’m writing about would have looked and sounded, felt and smelled. I need to know what my characters would have thought and believed, the likely prejudices of the age, the things so taken for granted that they’re never spelled out.
At this stage, I’m trying to find out what, at a basic level, it was like to live then.

Then there’s the more focused research – for Testement, this involved teaching myself about medieval architecture and building, medieval learning and the difference between English universities and those on the continent, the state of the English church and the heretical sect known as the Lollards. After trying to find out about everything, you suddenly narrow your focus to a very small field.
This can lead to interesting imbalances – like when I realised that I knew pretty much every tool and technique a journeyman, labourer or master mason might use during the day but I had no idea how they arranged the whole issue of going to the toilet… Fortunately, I didn’t need to know but it bothered me that I hadn’t managed to find out something so basic. (Interestingly, I know that kind of detail for the book I’m writing now, which is based in the nineteenth century. And I know because the contemporary commentators were so outraged at the primitive arrangements in the area I’m writing about. Sources are everything…)

Of course, I’m not doing all this research so I can put every last little detail in my book. Far from it. Paradoxically, you do research so that you can leave most of it out. In the same way that you know your own contemporary world intimately, but never refer to the vast majority of what you know, you need to leave most of what you’ve learned about your historical period in your notes. You still need to know it’s there, because you might want to refer to it tangentially, without going into detail, but for each fleeting reference, you’ll probably have a whole page of notes on how this fits in to the world of century/decade X.
At least, that’s how it is for me.

You see, I think the reader of historical fiction enters into a relationship of trust with the writer - he trusts that you know the period and will continue to trust you until or unless you make an obvious mistake. It’s not a matter of proving how much you know by the barrowloads of colourful period detail you put in; you prove your grasp on how your plot and your characters inhabit the period by the telling details you choose to include.

So, I’ve always taken the view that I will put no more detail into the historical strands of my fiction than I include in the contemporary scenes. If I don’t routinely describe what my twenty-first people are wearing (and I don’t), then I won’t give you a garment-by-garment description of what my fourteenth century people – or, in the work in progress, my nineteenth century characters – are wearing either. People in my contemporary worlds are rarely seen eating so I’m not going to give you much in the way of what my historical characters had for breakfast unless it’s strictly relevant.

Interestingly, though, research can often take you in unexpected directions. As part of the background research for Testament, I read a book on the economic climate of the late fourteenth century. It sounded as dull as ditchwater from the title (I’m sorry, I’m too lazy to go and unearth it so that I can tell you the proper title and author, I’ll try and do that for the next post) but it turned out to be a gem. The author had ploughed through endless manorial and court accounts – who paid what to whom and what for – and, because money makes the world go round, it was fascinating.
It told me, for instance, that an order was given, one summer, for all journeymen, whatever their trade, to down tools when the weather was fair, and help to bring in the harvest. Previous years’ harvests had been diabolical and there was a serious risk of mass starvation so the powers that be (and I had no idea how much the machinery of the state interfered in every aspect of daily life in the fourteenth century) decided that the harvest was the thing and everyone would have to do their bit to make sure it was successfully brought in.
Well, once I knew this, I had to include it, it was just too fascinating to ignore. And, fortunately for me, it provided a useful way of moving the plot on and providing conflict. Because, if the weather’s been dreadful and the harvesters have been waiting for a few nice days to get the grain in to the barns, the master mason has been waiting for exactly the same weather to progress his building. Send his journeymen out to bring in corn when there’s building to be done? I don’t think so…

More next time on getting the language right in historical fiction.
Don’t go away…


Tim Stretton said...

Alis, writing fantasy is surprisingly similar--at least, the kind of fantasy I write. I'm particularly looking forward to your thoughts on getting language right. Jarring language (especially dialogue) and anachronistic attitudes are the most pernicious flaws of historical fiction, I think.

Alis said...

I'll be getting the post on language up in a day or two Tim.

David Isaak said...

Wonderful, Alis. I'm fascinated by this sort of thing.

When I read Roger Morris's Gentle Axe, I was fascinated to find that it was more 'atmospheric' than Crime and Punishment itself. It took me a while to realize that Dostoyevsky could take the atmosphere of St Petersburg in the mid-19th century as a contemporary given, while Roger had to subtly carry us back there. An interesting problem.

Faye L. Booth said...

"Paradoxically, you do research so that you can leave most of it out."

You hit the nail on the head. This is what frustrates me - of course we don't deliver a point-by-point explanation of everything in our stories, because it would be like Bridget Jones explaining the workings of a zip, or the mechanics of the Tube in her diary! I have a post of my own coming up that relates to historical fiction, and I might quote you if that's OK.

Alis said...

Hi Faye - thanks for this, I love the thought of Bridget Jones explaining the workings of a zip (perfect example!) Please feel free to quote me wherever you like, I'd be delighted!

Faye L. Booth said...

Excellent! It is done: