Write it now, part 29: the fictions of history

I posted last week on the need for accurate research in both fiction and non-fiction writing. That’s particularly true for any historical novel where the research has to be not just accurate, but also the right sort of research.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Something not quite authentic here. Oh yes. Photo, 2012. History as we wanted it to be – not as it actually was.

A detail that isn’t authentic blows the suspension of disbelief, and the details needed for fiction – the little everyday things, the background stuff that actors call ‘the business’ – aren’t the ones usually recorded in reference material. An eighteenth century letter-writer doesn’t describe how they dipped the ink, melted the wax and so forth, because that’s a given; unspoken parts of their lives. But a biographer might want to know that as they fill out the world of their subject – and so do novellists.

The same is true of a lot of little details about how people lived every day, what they did, even the technologies they used. Sometimes we might not even know enough to pose the questions. Anybody know what ‘dubbin’ was, for instance, or how they made it?

That’s without considering the differences in culture. The onus is on the fiction writer to understand the period properly before trying to cast a story into it. Their values are not our values; their motives, thoughts and if-then judgements will not be ours.

Some art deco street theatre - a 'movie' being shot on location. Fun stuff. I took this with an 18mm lens (see the distortions along the top of the memorial arch in the background) which meant I was bang in the middle of the action.

I leaped out of my TARDIS, and there I was, trapped in a movie set one day in 1938…(Actually I took this in 2012). Click to en-cinemascope.

But that stuff can seem very strange to us. There has to be a balance. Truly authentic ‘old stuff’ actually doesn’t work – because the past, like it or not, is effectively another culture. Some authors do it. The master, to my mind, was George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman series captured the mind-set of the Victorian rake. Apparently the first of the series, Flashman, was mistaken for a genuine found memoir by one critic. It wasn’t.

To me there is a balance between exactly replicating the period and writing something that, to us, constitutes a good and compelling novel. It doesn’t mean bowdlerising or creating a hybrid. Too many novellists create a lead character that reflects modern values, in contrast to the period. I don’t entirely know why; perhaps they fear that their interest in times that by our standards were riddled with mysogyny, racism and licentiousness will be conflated with advocacy, perhaps?

The trick to finding the balance is being familiar with both the past world and our own, understanding the differences, and also knowing what constitutes the right detail to create that suspension of disbelief – to paint the real and genuine world of the past in appropriate detail, without rendering it in all its strangeness.  And that can only be done with a lot of hard work.

But that’s true, I guess, for all writing. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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7 comments on “Write it now, part 29: the fictions of history

  1. JC says:

    Great post! I was just reading this article by Hilary Mantel today, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303459004577363870847167262.html and it mirrors your sentiments. Well written. Cheers.

    • Checked it out – yes, that’s the point, definitely. It’s worse the further back you go. My main historical field, professionally, has been the nineteenth century, and that’s strange enough by our standards. The Tudors – well, even the language doesn’t match, as Hilary remarked.

  2. I feel safe writing about World War II because of Zane Grey, the western writer. I’ve become fairly convinced over the years that although Zane Grey was a novelist, he worked very hard to capture the spirit of the times — at least, the segment he was interested in. The reason I’ve become convinced he was a good observer, especially from the psychological perspective, comes from a lot of the WW2 veterans I’ve spoken with over the years. You can hear a lot of the echo of Zane Grey in their personal stories; not the cowboys of the plains, but the heart of the times. Funny thing is, most of those guys never heard of Zane Grey.

    Besides, you can catch a lot of everyday-life details in his work if you pay attention.

    OK, by modern standards he was mawkish and maudlin, but as you point out — different times equate to a different culture in many cases.

    The problem is that Zane Grey is a relatively modern writer — even though he died just before World War 2. So if you’re writing about something other than the American West, where most of Grey’s novels are set, you might have a hard time finding someone else who captures the flavor of the times.

    Nevil Shute was another such writer, and if you want to know something about aviation between the wars and for a time afterward there’s a lot of meat to be found there. Great writer!

    Good post, Matthew!

    • Absolutely true. What’s more, Grey wrote some of that stuff not only removed from the period, but also the place – some of it was penned here in NZ, in the Bay of Islands. There’s a pub, still running, lined with his big-game fishing pictures, and I’ve sat on the island beach where he sat, near his hide-away. It wasn’t very isolated or peaceful when I was there though.

      Shute was intriguing – a double life, effectively, under one name as an engineer and another as a novellist, with viewpoint buoyed in part, I think, on Australia’s practical disengagement from empire in the decades after the Second World War.

  3. arteis says:

    The Flashman books are indeed a fantastic read, and not least because the hero (if that’s the right word) is a perfectly rendered reflection of a certain social group from his time, and not a modern implant. Perhaps a somewhat exaggerated reflection, but nevertheless the books read as if Flashman really was from the Victorian period.

    It’s a shame GM Fraser died before he could add more books to the Flashman canon. Especially the much-hinted-at tale of Flashman’s exploits during the American Civil War tale, in which he apparently played an important part – on both sides.

    • Indeed! That would have been a wonderful novel to read. I am a HUGE fan of those books. My favourite was ‘Flashman at the Charge’, really Fraser’s take on Balaclava, for which my all-time favourite moment remains his participation in the charge itself, a wonderful piece of comic writing juxtaposed against the deadly seriousness of the instant.

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