Rose Melikan is kicking off a trilogy of guest posts from some authors of historical fiction. Enjoy!
I’m an academic in my “day job”, and writing scholarly non-fiction has influenced my Mary Finch novels a great deal. Structurally, I approach fiction in the same way as academic writing. I follow plans and outlines, and I work out calendars so that I can plot out the action on a day-by-day basis. As a story develops I often feel more like I am discovering and recording what actually happened rather than creating it, so I come to an understanding of the story in the same way that I come to an understanding of an actual historical development. Now, I’m sure that one reason I feel this way is that, so far, my fiction has been set in the same period as my academic work. I’m fictionalizing material that I’m already quite familiar with in the non-fiction context.
I also do the same kind of research for fiction and non-fiction, although I use that research in a different way. Non-fiction and fiction have the same basic objective – to convince the reader of an argument. The non-fiction argument is the thesis, and the fiction argument is the theme. The difference is that the non-fiction thesis is obvious whereas hopefully the theme in a work of fiction is not – you work it out as you go along. That’s the pleasure of reading a story – you wonder what is going to happen and why, but if you were wondering what an academic article was about as you were reading it, you’d probably give up. So, academic research is more focused and more obvious. The academic tries to make his argument irrefutable by setting out his sources in charts, tables, footnotes. Research for fiction is more wide-ranging and subtle. The author tries to captivate the reader and carry him along – encouraging rather than lecturing, so that the reader is won over without realizing it.
I think that the best kind of research in fiction, therefore, often goes unnoticed. It is embedded in throwaway comments, or background descriptions, or summaries that “effortlessly” set the scene. I find that I do a lot of research in order to feel comfortable not saying something, or to say something very simple – even something that, in retrospect, I could have said without doing the research, simply by making an educated guess. It can feel like a waste of time, but I like to think that some of my confidence is transferred to the reader. As a reader, I think I can sense when an author’s knowledge of the world he’s created is so extensive that he isn’t telling me everything he knows. He’s describing one room in a house, but if I asked him, he could tell me about all the other rooms. If I feel that an author is writing right up to the edge of his knowledge, I become suspicious, and once that happens, the illusion of the story is lost. Among modern novelists of historical fiction, I think that Patrick O’Brian is a master in this respect.
Another reason for doing more research than I think is strictly necessary, of course, is that sometimes my educated guess would have been wrong! There is nothing more irritating than finding a mistake after it has been incorporated in the story, particularly (as always seems the case) when it turns out to be something fairly straightforward that I really ought to have checked… It may seem odd to be worried about accuracy in the context of a work of fiction, but it’s essential that where the world of the novel intersects with real people or actual events, it doesn’t ignore what is known about those people and events. Of course, historical fiction can “get away” with inaccuracies or vagaries that authors of contemporary fiction cannot. The average reader today would find it difficult to estimate the time of a journey from London to Cambridge in 1800, or whether someone in Boston, Massachusetts would have had an accent significantly different from his relatives in Boston, Lincolnshire – but such details wouldn’t pose such a problem in a novel actually written in 1800. In one sense, the more ancient the setting, the less likely readers are to spot errors. On the other hand, the writers of contemporary fiction are much less likely to make these kinds of errors in the first place. More importantly, because they can presume a general familiarity on the part of their readers, contemporary novelists have fewer decisions to make about the level of accuracy necessary to establish and maintain their fictional worlds.
As you will have guessed by now, I’m rather a pedant where historical accuracy is concerned – it must be the academic in me. My editor once told me not to let the truth get in the way of a good story, but I’m afraid that I can’t knowingly falsify the historical record. I would much rather amend the plot (and hopefully come up with something better and more accurate). I also try to weave my story as closely as possible into real events, or events that might have happened, given the state of our knowledge. Most of the time these events are essential to the narrative, such as the timing of the Woolwich mutiny in The Counterfeit Guest, but sometimes I’m afraid that they simply reflect a fascination with detail, such as the departure time for the Ipswich to London mail coach in The Blackstone Key. Nothing really turned on it, but I wanted to get it right. Of course, sometimes I have to give in. I couldn’t discover the Parisian theatre schedules for the autumn of 1797, so my characters in The Mistaken Wife actually attend a play that was performed in the autumn of 1796. The London play in the same story, however, is accurate for the day and theatre mentioned. And I certainly can’t claim to be perfect. Fortunately, I have a wonderful copyeditor, who questions everything, and definitely keeps me on my toes.
For more info: Rose Melikan
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Posted by BookBitch at 9/18/2010 05:16:00 PM