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.
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.
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