Sunday 29 August 2010

Icy's Guide to writing Historical Fiction

Having read the excellent guest post by the equally excellent Carrie Clevenger over at Write Anything about writing historical fiction, I thought I might take the time to sit down, and have a bit of a chat about my own process. Lately I've been basing some flashes on local legends or historical anecdotes, and I've discovered I really enjoy doing so.

Fowlis Westerby
I first began flirting with history when I wrote my first novel, Fowlis Westerby. Fowlis himself is a ghost and therefore free from the restraints of time, but as he is originally a Cavalier, I needed to have some awareness of the English Civil War. Hazy memories of studying the Stuarts at school was clearly not enough, and I've been spending some time researching the period. Madame Blavatsky also makes an appearance, so again I delved into the history books to find out more about this fascinating figure.

Local legends and anecdotes
I've already written a post about the origins of the tale that inspired my flash about the Black Knight, but my most recent flash, The Resurrection Men, and an exclusive flash which will only appear in my forthcoming e-book, a tale named The Charterhouse Bullies, were both inspired by historical events. History can sometimes seem so dry and far removed from us. How can we connect with people and places that are long gone? Personally, I love reading historical non-fiction. Only this week, I've bought a book on Victorian social history, and another on medieval England (research for the third tale from Vertigo City). One of my passions is London history - I might be a Geordie but London is my current home, and I like to know where I'm living. Besides, London has a rich and eccentric history, and it provides ripe fodder for fictional prompts.

It starts
So how do I go about writing it? Well it usually starts with a book. I might be a film student but I do love reading. So there I am, reading about whatever has taken my fancy on that particular day, and something leaps out at me. One of two things now happens. Sometimes a story pops into my head, fully formed, that is designed solely to add a human face to an anecdote or legend. The rest of the time, the seed of an idea drops into the top soil of my mind, and I have to do a little gardening to get it to grow. By gardening, I obviously mean research, but you knew that, didn't you? Of course you did.

When I say research, what is the first thing that pops into your head? If you thought, "Wikipedia", then get out of my classroom now, and don't come back until you've written "Encyclopaedia Britannica" 800 times. Wikipedia CAN be a useful source of information, but, like most things on the Internet, it is written and edited by ANYONE. Take what you find on it with a hearty dose of salt - much of it is written by experts for other experts but that won't stop some bored jackass changing the details.

Instead, go to a library. Bloggers might be predicting the death of publishing but real books still exist, and they still contain an absolute wealth of knowledge. Read all you can about your chosen topic - accept what feels right, discard what doesn't. Remember that these will be mostly secondary sources and their primary sources might not be the most reliable. Even if you find primary sources, consider their original purpose and remember that they might be biased, and if they're memoirs, remember that people won't always tell you the whole story, and even if they do, the human memory is not infallible.

If your historical period is after the mid-1800s, seek out photographs. Yes, some early photographs were faked, or fake merely in the sense that they are highly posed, but they'll still give you a greater clue to details, ambience and basic setting than any amount of description in a book. Photographs act as wonderful prompts anyway, but old photographs do so in a completely different way. Why not use old family photographs to write the invented histories of your ancestors? Experience media from the period in whatever way you can - Carrie also recommends listening to music from the period, but movies are also a good example. Yes, they may be sanitised, romanticised, or simply from one point of view, but what they DON'T contain often tells you more than what they DO. You can also check out paintings, engravings, or even tapestries. If you've got a local fashion or textiles museum, pay a visit - costume can tell you a lot about social convention or mobility.

If it's possible, visit locations. I write a lot in London so obviously I can pop out and see the places. Many of them no longer exist, but while the street or building itself has long since gone, there will no doubt be somewhere similar nearby. There is enough of London's strange atmosphere to soak up that I can get by on what I absorb simply walking around.

If your piece occurs within living memory, then talk to people who were there. Again, be wary of rose-tinted spectacles or skewed memories, but you can still get plenty of details from a conversation with someone who experienced a period firsthand that you'd never get from a book. If it doesn't occur within living memory, then try and track down oral histories. There are several that deal with the Victorian period due to the sudden interest taken in the lower orders. The documentation is mind-boggling.

Immerse yourself and put it all together
Hopefully, if you immerse yourself in a period for long enough, you'll feel that little 'click' when it all comes together. Your idea will be rooted in a sense of 'reality' and your research will help bring a past time to life. This reality will breathe life into characters and places that are long gone - and hopefully you'll have a better sense of where you come from, and what has gone before. Go forth on your historical quest - and good luck.


Pamila Payne said...

What an insightful bit of advice, Icy. Sensible, useful and delivered with your usual entertaining wit.

Icy Sedgwick said...

I'm witty? *beams*

Pamila Payne said...

Absolutely. In the best possible unaffected way.

Unknown said...

Good post and tips. Immersion is key. I've heard Carrie mention her period music.

Carrie Clevenger said...

I'd visit those places if I could, but I also wanted to add that it's a heavy responsibility to write historical fiction, unless you're doing alternate history. Take HBO's ROME for example. Some viewers might take it as Gospel, but the events are all mixed up.

Get it right. Do it right, and make it clear if you're not.

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