Writing historical fiction

Historical time-machines 

When you’re writing a novel set in a period that’s not your own, research is an inescapable part of the equation. Not that it bothers me — I love setting off on in my mind-powered time-machine on a journey of discovery into the ‘foreign’ yet teasingly familiar country that is the past. It is indeed often so much fun that it can be hard to tear yourself away from the research to begin the hard work of the book itself! And you also have to temper enthusiasm with temperance — to know the point at which enough research becomes too much. And not to paralyse your creativity with too much emphasis on logistics or facts — to remember you are writing a historical novel, not a historical textbook. Over the years I’ve become familiar with those tipping points and now, by instinct, know when to stop — and not to become enslaved by historical fact. The trick is to learn enough facts and absorb enough cultural atmosphere to feel as though you are comfortable in that period; but not to think you need to know absolutely everything — after all, you don’t even know absolutely everything about your own times! 

When I do research into a historical period for a novel, I look at a whole range of source materials. Though I do briefly look at secondary sources such as general histories of the period (and also books focussing on particular aspects of that period, say, clothes, transport, weapons, social or cultural developments, etc), by far the major part of my reading is done in primary sources. I’m not just talking about original historical documents, here(their importance goes without saying) but also the creative primary sources of the period I’m writing about: novels, plays, poetry, narrative non-fiction of that period (including travel books), and contemporary magazines. These give a much better and warmer feel for the actual atmosphere of the times than books written later, with the benefit of hindsight. You get a real sense of how people thought and spoke—and it can be really surprising. For instance, I’d assumed that the word ‘cool’ in the sense we use it today was a fairly modern usage. Not a bit of it! It was used the same way in Victorian times: in Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, at one point someone exclaims, ‘Cool!’ meaning ‘Wow’; in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a ‘cool few thousand’ is inherited. Similarly, the Victorian term for a police detective (which also appears in Great Expectations), a ‘jack’ is still in common use in the Australian criminal underclass, at least in Melbourne ganglands, as evidenced in the Underbelly series. Along with ‘copper’ and ‘pig’ — the latter of which has been in use as a derogatory term for the police, since the sixteenth century. 

I’m not saying of course one should slavishly copy 19th century novel structure or speech patterns in order to write a modern novel set in the 19th century — any more than 19th century novelists like Alexandre Dumas used seventeenth-century structures or speech patterns to write novels set at that time. But the flavour of a time is strongly there within those fictional worlds, and it can’t help but influence you as you write your own book. For instance, staying in the 19th century, there is a dominant lightness of touch, an elegant irony in the style of many novelists, which combines with Gothic romance, a touch of melancholy, intensive and sometimes extreme characterisation, comic elements and strong stories to create a rich and engaging atmosphere that for many readers typifies the novel of the 19th century. The writers are all different and express their own thing, of course; but there is still something we come to recognise, and which even in a modern novel set at that period, we unconsciously look for.   

As well as novels, plays and poetry of the time I’m writing about, I also find it rewarding to plunge into the more ephemeral form of period non-fiction. More ephemeral because of course unlike fiction with its more universal and ageless themes, non-fiction, particularly of the social observation or comment type, tends to concentrate on the here and now. And what is accepted wisdom in one generation is often upended in the next. But it is still intensely fascinating and absolutely necessary as reading material for a historical novelist, as far as I’m concerned, anyway. For instance, when I was writing The Case of the Diamond Shadow, my mystery novel set in the 1930’s, I bought, second-hand over the Internet, a great many books and magazines from the time. All sorts of things, from film and fashion magazines to handbooks of forensic pathology, true-crime books and magazines, literary magazines, guide-books to London and Paris, political tracts, and more. As well, I had my grandparents’ photographs to pore over, and pictures and photos in the various contemporary books and magazines (the visual material is almost as important as written things, and should never be overlooked.) I also watched a good many films from that time, and listened to its music. As well as being wonderfully entertaining, this all immersed me completely in the atmosphere of the time, making me feel almost as though I were actually living in it, becoming so familiar with it that it was easy then to create exactly the kind of atmosphere I wanted for my book. 

Magazines are particularly good for recreating in your mind all those sorts of elements that people forget about, once fashions change and time moves on. It’s not only their stories and articles that are such a rich source of atmosphere — but also their advertisements. They are the small beer of daily life, but looking at them, you get a sense of people’s daily concerns, fears, hopes, and wishes. Similarly, when researching The Understudy’s Revenge, my forthcoming novel, which is set in the London theatre world in 1860 (and which features cameo appearances by both Dickens and Collins) I lived in the rich climate of the Victorian novel, plus reading a good many Victorian works of non-fiction. From www.abebooks.com, my favourite source of such material (and which is a virtual shopfront of hundreds of 2nd hand bookshops from across the world), I ordered original, bound copies of Dickens’ magazine of the time, All the Year Round, (a particular thrill was seeing The Woman In White in its original serial form) as well as Punch, and I dipped also into bound collections of magazines I already own, which come from that time — such as Blackwood’s and one called London Society which only seems to have lasted a few years (I am an inveterate haunter of second-hand bookshops and am always picking up odds and ends). Magazines proliferated at that time, each of them aimed at a different niche market, each of them featuring short stories, serialised novels, poetry, and articles on every conceivable subject. Some, like London Society, were profusely illustrated; others, like All the Year Round, were not. But they are absolute goldmines of wonderful atmosphere, unusual facts, stray bits of ideas and dialogue, and they will often spark you off on trains of thought you might never otherwise have considered if you hadn’t picked up that magazine.

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