Saturday, 26 June 2021

Writing Historical Fiction - Research and the immersive experience


Only two posts ago I wrote about walking away from stories because they didn't feel right and giving it a rest for a while. I wasn't going to write. I was just going to focus on the edits to Safe when they came in. What a silly thing to state. I should have placed a bet on what happened next as I could have almost guaranteed it. 

Within a few days, an idea for a story came to me in the middle of the night. It was so demanding it woke me up! And the idea wouldn't shut up as a basic plot began to form in my head. I couldn't go back to sleep until it was done. I had no idea if it had legs. I thought maybe if I still remembered it in the morning, it would be a go-er. I did, so I wrote down the basics the following morning. This was going against everything I had said I would do. See writers never do what they say they are going to do! My writing never goes to plan.

But I am having a wonderful time. I am playing with this new story idea. It is historical again. Before I start writing it though, I have to read myself into the period. What this means is I have to do some basic background research. I spend a couple of days reading what I can about the period and the place at the time. Reading around the general history, the country, the culture, and the people. Enough to give me a sense and a feel for the place. A brief immersive experience. The more detailed research will be done when I do the editing and I will add more colour - it is all about the writing cold/edit hot process. I wrote about it here.

It is important to limit this background research because it is easy to find yourself going down many a rabbit hole as things spark your interest. There is a risk you could spend so long doing research that you avoid writing or actually forget to write the book. It is great for procrastination.

Illustration from US 
edition of Flight
by Zach Myers

However, when I am doing this research what I love the most is finding those small details. Nuggets of information that make my spine tingle. They are all very small minutiae, but I know when I use them to inspire my writing, or I include them in the narrative they will add depth to the writing and make it sing. Hopefully giving the writing a richness and a sense of verisimilitude. It is important that research despite adding richness is there with only a light touch.

This is because what I mustn’t do is overload my writing with too much detail and information in order to prove how much research I have done to the reader. Such a rookie mistake. All that does is make the writing inaccessible and boring for the reader. The quickest way to switch any reader, particularly a child reader off. It is all about leaving just enough hints on the page that help the reader paint a picture in their mind as they read, but not lecturing them or slapping them around the face with information.

The other thing I do a lot of when I am doing all this research is think. There is a lot of visualisation going on. It is once again all about the latent processing – I have written about this before too in the same place. As a writer, I see my story as a film in my head as I write and my process is all about getting those images from my brain on to the page. At the beginning of the story, as I start to create it, odd scenes appear in no particular order. They frequently give me a vague sense of the direction of the story as images from the beginning, middle and end appear.

Quite often some of the research I may include will mean nothing to the child reader, but it might do to any adult readers – of which I have quite a few. Also, there is a chance that the child reader might take it in and remember, which is why I try to do as much research as I can and do my best to get it right. I remember Imogen Cooper saying to me, it is important not to get it wrong. I've heard of people being put off a text because they found mistakes. For me, particularly when I am writing historical fiction, I am aware that I am influencing someone's perception of history even if it is fictional. A reader may take it as truth, which is why I try to do as much research as I can. 

Having said that, I do remember a time when a man thought I hadn't done my research. They accused me of basing my representation of General Patton on the actor who had played him rather than the actual person. This really stung. I had spent days and days researching General Patton as he was key to my story. I had read his memoir, war correspondence, anything I could about him, but most importantly spent hours staring at photos of him. I didn't watch the film, watching films are a last resort for me when looking at real life characters. Unfortunately, I highlighted in my novel the one facial characteristic that both he and the actor, George.C Scott, who played him in the film had - a prounounced cleft in the chin! I knew I'd never convince this person otherwise. He'd made his mind up about my researching capabilities and my book, a children's book. There are times when it doesn't matter how much research you do, someone will find fault. Be warned.

I spoke about needing the 'feel' when writing and I am definitely getting that with this story. These little nuggets of information I am finding are helping to create a truly wonderful story in my head. The emotions are there already. I hope they stay. For the moment, I am enjoying the process. Writing is the best job in the world. 

No comments:

Post a Comment