A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I have written two works of historical fiction – The Credit Draper and The Liberation of Celia Kahn – both set in the early part of the 20th century. With both books, people have approached me and commented on how much research I must have done in order to recreate the period. Not wanting to disavow them of their positive opinion of me or my work, I usually agree. But the truth is, I don’t think I do much research at all. The reason I believe I can get away with this, is that I have my own four golden rules of writing historical fiction. They seem to work for me and I hope they work for you too!
The first rule is not to set your novel within any period that is less than eighty years distant from the present day. That way you are not going to have some clever person writing to you or sitting in the audience complaining about a minor historical inaccuracy. Don’t even go near the Holocaust or the current Middle East crisis unless you hold a doctorate on the subjects as you will be set upon by a whole host of experts or opinions from all sides of the political divide. When I wrote my first novel about a Jewish peddler working in the Highlands in about 1918, I went to an archive centre to see if there were any written testimonies about someone who had actually worked as a credit draper in the Highlands in 1918. When an embarrassed and apologetic archivist told me that there was none, I was absolutely delighted. That meant I could just make the whole thing up and no-one would contradict me.
The second golden rule is to do most of your research as you go along. When investigating any subject, the amount of research you can do beforehand is almost limitless and you can waste pointless hours reading and taking notes on material that you will never use. Better to do a little research to get your story started, then do the rest as you go along, allowing your narrative or characters to dictate the research rather than the other way around.
My third golden rule – and probably the most useful one – is to find some authentic hook that people can tie their imaginations to so they trust you as an author and just relax into the material. What I mean is this:
Many years ago when people went to the theatre, the curtains would open, and there would be a full set of say a country house or a jazz club or a Venetian palace. In those days, most people never had access to these places either in reality or through the media. Nowadays, exposed as we are to so many images via TV, film the Internet or just the mere ease of travel, we can turn up at the theatre and see a sofa and a tennis racket and fill in the country house scene with our own imagination. Similarly, with literature, novels prior to the mid 20th century used to be filled with dense prose describing a particular scene or location. Nowadays, I believe we can get away with using just one or two authentic hooks and the imagination will do the rest. But they must be unusual or authentic hooks. There is no use pretending you know about a place by describing the usual, boring stereotypes.
For example, we all can describe New York – even if we haven’t been there – as having tall buildings and wide streets and yellow cabs and a Statue of Liberty. Very boring and very unconvincing. But if you say ‘I saw the garbage men picking up the rats strewn across the sidewalk in the early morning’, then your reader suddenly believes you have been there – they can fill in the tall buildings, the wide streets, the taxi cabs and the Statue of Liberty all by themselves. In my latest novel, I had to describe one of my characters at an historical event – a demonstration in a square in the centre of Glasgow in 1919. While I was doing my research I was looking for one of those authentic details that would convince my readers I knew what I was talking about. I found it when I read that some of the miners present took a wooden newspaper stand from outside a newsagent, hoisted it on their shoulders to make a platform for one of the speakers at the demonstration. Once you have your character on one of these makeshift platforms chanting out her slogans, you’ve hooked your reader into your scene.
My final golden rule is to have your character (either in the third or first person) drive the narrative of the historical events rather than the other way around. If you have an omniscient narrator, then you have someone who really should be in possession of all the facts and all the different opinions about a particular event or place. But if you are driving the narrative through your character, then that character will have a subjective take on what is happening – and that subjective take may or may not be necessarily true. For example, say we were writing about the recent student protests over university fees. If you are describing the event from the point of view of an omniscient narrator – it would be almost like a BBC reporter who has to be impartial and also get all his/her facts right. But if you are writing from the point of view of a student, then that person will have their own view of events that may or may not be true – the police were brutal, we poked Camilla with a stick, there must have been ten thousand of us etc.. It doesn’t really matter what actually happened – only what that person thought happened.
Anyway, those are my four golden rules for writing historical fiction. I have already broken my first rule for my next novel – An Exquisite Sense of What is Beautiful – as part of it is set in the 1950s. It is also located mostly in Japan – but I lived there for seven years so I am fully armed with lots of authentic details to hook you in to the period!
J David Simons’ first novel, The Credit Draper, set in Glasgow and the Highlands in the early 20th century, was shortlisted for the Society of Authors’ McKitterick Prize. He was awarded a Writer’s Bursary from Creative Scotland to assist in the writing of The Liberation of Celia Kahn. He has worked as a lawyer, cotton farmer, university lecturer and journalist, living in Australia, Israel and Japan, before returning to Glasgow in 2006 to become a full-time writer. For more information, please visit www.jdavidsimons.com.
For the Vulpes Libris review of The Liberation of Celia Kahn, please click here.
For Lizzy Siddal’s review of the same novel, click here.