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Thursday Soapbox: J. David Simons on writing historical fiction and minimizing the research

Article by J. David Simons, author of The Liberation of Celia Kahn and The Credit Draper.


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.

19 comments on “Thursday Soapbox: J. David Simons on writing historical fiction and minimizing the research

  1. kirstyjane
    March 3, 2011

    I really enjoyed reading this piece, but I have a tremendously ambivalent reaction to it. (For clarification, I am a history PhD student, and I try not to be one of those people who carps about inaccuracies in historical fiction – after all that isn’t the point – although I still have a hard time switching that off when it’s anything to do with my topic!)

    On one hand, I find the honesty here admirable, and in some respects bang on. There are many more important things in historical fiction than accuracy, insofar as the facts can even be determined with accuracy (which is far from always the case). There is no reason why historical novelists should have to undertake the same research process as historians; in fact, I’ve read some beautifully researched but hugely boring stuff, and some far more impressionistic approaches that are just good fiction. And a first or third person narrative *should* be flawed and subjective, because that’s what a personal perspective is. (And researchers shouldn’t kid themselves either – we have our own baggage and it shapes what we do – all we can do about it is own up and try to work past it.) I think that letting the narrative drive the research is very sane advice. In fact, a similar approach can work for writing a PhD – if you want to do so realistically, on time and well – if you’re writing as you go, you keep the limits of your project well defined and can better determine which material is really useful.

    But.

    I can’t help but feel a little down at this lovely cheery soapbox, because while accuracy is not and should not be the alpha and omega of historical fiction, people get worked up about historical events because they do matter, and a really enjoyable work of historical fiction can potentially influence how those events are perceived to a much greater extent and for much longer than an academic study can. I’m not saying that historical novelists really ought to care about that, but it might go some way towards explaining why the complainers, well… complain. (And if it helps, historians get this too – there are always people ready to jump on you for not writing what they want you to write. But in my mellower moments I manage to take it as a sign that people really care about history, and if it weren’t for that…)

    Anyway, thank you very much for this lively contribution. It has given me a lot to think about!

  2. j david simons
    March 3, 2011

    Hi Kirsty Jane

    So many thanks for your thoughtful comments. However, apart from the point I made about the subjective narrator, I don’t feel that I am trying to advocate inaccuracy here. I worked with an archivist at Caledonian University on my latest novel ‘The Liberation of Celia Kahn’ and she was happy that my depiction of events passed muster. However, I know that, for example, the introduction of birth control clinics in Glasgow did not take place until a year or so after the dates suggested in the novel. What is important for me is that I am making a conscious decision to bend the truth slightly to suit the story rather than just running rampant and being engaged in sloppy research.

    I guess what I was trying to say in the article is that unlike historians or writers of non-fiction, there are ways a fiction writer can get on with their story without getting too bogged down in the research. Too many times have I heard fiction writers complain that they haven’t started on the book yet because they are too busy with the research. At the same time, I don’t believe that means they should exert total ‘poetic licence’ and forego their research. It just means let the narrative drive the research than the other way around. And allow the readers to use their imagination – because after all that is what fiction writing is all about.

    Anyway, interesting debate. Any more comments?

  3. kirstyjane
    March 3, 2011

    Thanks very much for the further comment – that really clarifies matters for me. I certainly didn’t mean to imply you advocated inaccuracy, although I felt a bit of a wrench at the line about making it all up (even as I knew perfectly well that was a fine bit of dry humour). Certainly when you look at the creative licence routinely exercised by novelists and screenwriters, introducing family planning clinics to Glasgow a year early hardly registers!

    I feel there is a lot in your advice which could and should apply to anyone writing a research-based project – more people need to hear about the joys of writing and researching concurrently. But I just wanted to stick up for the sticklers too, although I know we are an annoying lot. (Despite my best efforts, I am still that person who bleats “but that wasn’t introduced until 1930!” at tense moments in films.)

  4. annebrooke
    March 3, 2011

    Great article, and it cheered me up no end as, whenever I’ve felt the urge to write an historical novel, the thought of drowning in research has filled me with utter horror. This makes it sound as if it might still be possible, one day!

    I suppose either way, if I do in the dim and distant future do this (and good grief I even have the first 3 sentences of the dang thing, let’s be honest about this, but have never dared to add a 4th … but then again when you understand that I really really do want to write about Oliver Cromwell, then you may see the reason for my reluctance and downright terror!…), then I will somehow have to find a shadowy balance between the huge amount of facts piled up around the era and the man, and some kind of creative fictional input.

    Hmm, maybe I’ll not write Sentence 4 for a while yet – as I foresee trouble ahead!

    🙂

    Anne

    PS Do you think I’ve outed myself?…

  5. annebrooke
    March 3, 2011

    PPS Kirsty – you are not as bad as my (farmer) stepfather who in the middle of a glorious shot in the film, Amadeus, where the camera was panning across a rural scene, piped up in tones of great annoyance with: “But they didn’t have Friesian cows back then!…”

    We really couldn’t take poor Mozart seriously after that, and neither could the rest of the cinema …

    Anne
    xxx

  6. kirstyjane
    March 3, 2011

    Bwahahahahahahahaha! I love it!

  7. Trilby
    March 3, 2011

    Great piece. I’m assuming that the first point was intended to be slightly tongue in cheek (after all, there have been some brilliant novels published recently which are set in the 60s and 70s), but on the whole I absolutely agree with your other three points. The fourth rule is pretty useful regardless of genre, I’d say, and the third absolutely relevant when it comes to description, full-stop.

    As a former history student (who’s since defected to a PhD in Creative Writing via social anthropology), I found that your second point struck closest to home: I adore research, and yet I know I’m creating a rod for my own back by accumulating piles of notes before I so much as think about writing Chapter One. There’s no cramp to a novel’s emerging style like a stack of history books glowering at you from the other end of the desk.

    On the other hand, there have been times when a factual nugget has gone on to inspire any number of unforseen twists and turns that imagination alone could never provide – so I suspect it works both ways…

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking read!

  8. Shelley
    March 3, 2011

    Cotton farmer? That caught my attention, you bet.

    But the “wasted” research is the bulk of the iceberg under the water, as Hemingway said.

  9. Emma Darwin
    March 3, 2011

    Great piece and lots of fascinating questions.

    I do agree about the hook – something really physical and immediate to place us in space and time, and not standard-issue. On the other hand it does have to be something which doesn’t take too much explaining, if you’re trying to establish setting and not set up a treatis on mid-Victorian waste management… It’s where writing short historical fiction is exceptionally hard, because you have even less space in which to be subtle about your hooks, but still don’t want to rely on the standard issue stuff, in the way that Hollywood always shows Big Ben to say ‘London’… You are always working with your best guess about what the reader knows, and doesn’t know.

    On research, I disagree about doing it as you go along, but only for myself, because I know as many processes for writing historical fiction as I know writers of it. FWIW, I research the barest bones before – the things which I need to get my fictional imagination going, and the things which will wreck the plot and structure if I get them wrong. Then I leave it all aside while I write the first draft, if I possibly can. Finally I go back and research everything I turned out to need…

    But I do agree that, really, talking about research is boring. Just as what’s interesting about Shakespeare’s sources is how he changed the stories to make his plays, what’s interesting about the historical facts in a novel is what the writer THEN did with them… Much as I love doing events, my heart always sinks at the ‘How do you do your research?’ question, and even more at the person who’s determined to read historical fiction as history. It’s not history. I made it up. I’ve sometimes realised that I’m sounding like a writer saying ‘research doesn’t matter’ in terms of getting it right, when in fact what I’m saying is ‘I take the need to get it right as read. What more is there to say? Now, let’s talk about telling stories, and characters, and language and….’

    Actually, of course, it IS interesting at the meta-level, because there’s a whole, tacit, ethical system operating about what you can and can’t, may and may not change, of your so-called facts (most of which aren’t facts at all, but are the record: what people then and historians now have decided are the important and/or true and so preserved.). So no one blinks when I invent a servant who didn’t exist, and no one thinks I should invent a Queen who didn’t exist, but where, exactly, the dividing line is between the two IS interesting: what’s too important, in our view of history, to lie about? When is storytelling allowed to win over history? And when is it not?

    I could go on, but I’ll stop there!

  10. john latham
    March 3, 2011

    In my view, as someone who had the misfortune to get a PhD in something or other, facts are socially constructed and often quite suspect things. In my research, I used as few as possible and barely any which contradicted my argument. I think writing a novel should give an author as much scope as they want, if they write a good enough story from whatever POV they should not be put off by the odd pedant with nothing better to do than say “it wasn’t like this!” For me history is a matter of interpretation, documents give partial views and statistics can’t be trusted- only a few dates can’t be questioned. This was a great soapbox and the comments very interesting also.
    Jon.

  11. houndstohavanese
    March 3, 2011

    All I know is that, if I read a historical novel, or a fictional book about a subject that I’m fairly familiar with, and there is something within the narrative that I recognise is inaccurate, it puts me right off the book. And I am liable not to read any more by that author.

    I am just an ordinary reader, with no qualifications to my name!

  12. elizabethashworth
    March 4, 2011

    I’m not sure why historical research should be seen as a chore. For me, the research always comes first because my stories come from the research. It’s when I’m delving into what has been written about the past that I find something that captures my imagination and makes me want to tell that story. I like to think I have something in common with the monks who were the chroniclers of the middle ages and whose accounts were an interpretation of the stories they were being told by the travellers who came to stay in their monasteries.

    History isn’t boring. It’s about real people and the bits that got written down were often the interesting bits, the things that were being talked about at the time – and that’s where the good stories can be found.

    I think the difference between me and J. David Simons is that his stories are purely original but set in another time and so need only research into the setting. Mine are about the history of another time, and if you’re writing a story that is dictated by the politics of the 14th century then you do have to understand those politics before you can construct your own story. But I enjoy the research. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be writing historical fiction.

  13. j david simons
    March 4, 2011

    Hi Elizabeth

    I do think you make an interesting distinction. I would agree that it is the stories that come first for me and the historical context is merely the vehicle for the narrative while it seems that for you, it is the history that is primarily important and then the stories that derive from that.

  14. Emma Darwin
    March 4, 2011

    My second novel, A Secret Alchemy, was somewhere between the two approaches – Elizabeths, and JDS’s – I suppose, in the sense that two of the three narrators were the extremely real Elizabeth and Anthony Woodville. On the other hand, a large part of my project was to escape from the biography-shape of fiction that uses real historical characters, and the structure of the novel was one way I tried to do that.

    I do think that storytelling should trump what are thought to be facts, where things can’t be finessed to satisfy both. (and though I agree that most of what people think are facts – that Thomas More was a nice man, that Elizabeth Woodville was a bad woman – are actually what people chose to record, there is actual, historical fact behind the record). For example, most of Elizabeth’s seven sisters were in waiting on her at one time or another when she was queen. BUT there were two disadvantages to my trying to be accurate about that. One problem: the facts aren’t recorded in an easily accessible form, so I could have spent six months in the PRO and not nailed them. Second and much more important, were the needs of my storytelling: I needed a sister for Elizabeth who I could develop into a real character across time, in a relatively small space (her narrative is only one of three, and covers 40-odd years). So I picked a sister – Margaret, the next-but-one – and whenever I needed a sister, I used her. And many readers have said she’s a favourite character.

    Now, no doubt, to someone who knows the records for Edward IV’s court backwards would see that as a ‘mistake’, and it might make them give up on the novel. But for me – and for most readers – it’s not a fact which is important enough for getting it ‘wrong’ to break the contract between reader and writers. Whereas, having a succession of names with no personalities would be much more likely to break that contract. It’s a clear case where the needs of storytelling trump the needs of minor accuracy.

    But having written 30,000 words for my PhD about how I and other novelists have gone about similar projects, I won’t try and recap here, just say that all writers of hist fic have to consciously or unconsciously work out their own ethical system for this stuff: what they will and won’t invent, what they can and can’t change…

  15. Emma Darwin
    March 4, 2011

    (Oops! I left the ‘e’ off ‘treatise’ in my first post)

    I don’t think research is boring at all. I love it, though I am always straining at the leash to get on with writing the novel, because research material is only the start. I love truffling stuff out and I love even more coming across things that I didn’t know I was looking for, but turn out to be incredibly useful or very yummy. Even though I know that 90% of what I research doesn’t end up in the first draft, and of the 10% which does, most of that will go in revision.

    It’s talking about it that (in one sense) I think is boring – what you do with it is much more interesting. The last thing I’d want to do is regard writing a historical novel as simply animating researched material, any more than I want a non-historical novel to be animating the real modern world. I want both to evolve beyond the (disguised/fiddled-with/costumed) facts, into some kind of otherness.

  16. rosyb
    March 5, 2011

    I suppose different books have different purposes and different readers are looking for different things…If you follow the story trumps history argument too far you will end up with an escapist romance with a pretty or dramatic setting in the past as the height of historical literature.

    Like any fiction, it is up to the book to tell us what to expect, if you like. I would not expect great accuracy from a Mills and Boon. But if a book set itself up with a lot of detail and appeared to be presenting a careful portrait of the time – then I would be cheesed off at too much blatent massaging of facts to fit story because learning a bit about the time is one of the pleasures of such a book. (It’s a bit like film: the playful winking The Knight’s Tale does not lead you to expect an accurate history lesson. Clint Eastwood’s incredible Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are, however, completely different (obviously) and so absorbing with their thesis, if you like, depending on a level of historical realness (if not fact, then at least plausability).

    So perhaps it is down to style and genre and setting up of expectations.

    But surely a great historical novel (or film) tells us as much about now as about then? But perhaps we aren’t going to listen to that if the then is poorly researched and simply inaccurate.

    I also think a really good piece will tend to send you scurrying to find out more and if you then find out half of what you’ve been told is bunkum, then it can be really disappointing and the work will diminish in your mind – you may take less notice of its themes and what it is trying to say if the “evidence” it is using to support this is wrong.

    An example might be The Social Network – which I really enjoyed and brilliant performances and terrific dialogue. But I found that when I looked up and found that there had been a girlfriend in the picture since his Sophomore year…well it just highlighted the pack of cards like construction of the story. I had a bit of a problem about the women (lack of) in that film anyway – but then to find that wasn’t even the case…I am sure there may even be good reasons for this decision. But as the story concentrated so much on a certain lack of girlfriendness as a theme – it highlighted the bricks and mortar construction of that story – of which you shouldn’t really be so aware. And the you think – if that’s all false , what are you then left with? Why make it about real people at all?

    There is a debate about real people in books and film to be had. Not just in terms of historical fiction but also in terms of things like films being made of grizzly murders or biopics of dead unable-to-answer-back comedians on BBC4. There seems to be a real hunger for the “real” at the moment. I wonder why and I find it quite problematic in many ways.

  17. Lisa
    March 5, 2011

    Just popping in to say I thought this was a very interesting Soapbox and I’m enjoying the debate.

    “But I found that when I looked up and found that there had been a girlfriend in the picture since his Sophomore year…well it just highlighted the pack of cards like construction of the story.”

    I saw The Social Network recently, Rosy (the Facebook film) and was also really disappointed when I Googled Mark Zuckerberg and discovered that he had a long-term girlfriend, who didn’t appear in the film. This really shook my faith in the film’s accuracy because to me the main character was portrayed as a loner looking to impress a girl that he couldn’t have, when in ‘real life’ it appears he was happy in a long-term relationship. Once that ‘impress out-of-reach girl’ motivation was taken out of the equation, I wondered what his real motivation was, and then I started questioning everything else that the film portrayed. So very disappointing, and like you I didn’t understand the wisdom of that decision to leave out a massive part of Zuckerberg’s life. For what? To make it a neater, more traditional story? Because the audience wouldn’t be able to believe in a genius/geek/hacker type if he had a long-term girlfriend? Is it about stereotypes to the extent that they now have to come before facts, even in productions purporting to be based on fact? I just didn’t understand it at all.

    Another thing though that I found interesting about this thread was when Emma says, “So no one blinks when I invent a servant who didn’t exist, and no one thinks I should invent a Queen who didn’t exist, but where, exactly, the dividing line is between the two IS interesting: what’s too important, in our view of history, to lie about? When is storytelling allowed to win over history? And when is it not?”

    This is something that I obviously can’t answer, but just thinking about it made me feel quite uncomfortable, bringing up as it does questions of class, money, fame and notions of importance.

  18. j david simons
    March 5, 2011

    Another interesting comparison is The King’s Speech. I have recently seen both the film and the documentary The Real King’s Speech and found both equally compelling. The reason was that it is the essence of the story that seduces, engages and captures the imagination. It is about the courage and determination of a person to overcome adversity – an essence which is highlighted, of course, by the fact that here we have a man possessing an impediment that prevents him for carrying out the very public role history assigns for him. Of course, there are certain historical events that must accurately punctuate the drama such as the speech at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow or the radio broadcast at the end of the war. But beyond that, we are prepared to lend poetic licence to the relationship between George and Logue, or the attitudes of say Churchill which are completely incorrect (Churchill was a great supporter of Edward and was completely against the abdication). Anyway, I guess what I am saying is that in writing historical fiction, what is important is capturing the essence of the story in the context of certain accurate historical facts. With Social Network, I believe Rosy and Lisa feel betrayed by the fact that the essential story was undermined by the inaccuracy. But if the writer can accurately capture the essential story then beyond that I believe he/she can do what she wants in historical fiction.

  19. Melrose
    March 5, 2011

    I had to laugh at the description of the narrator – “it would be almost like a BBC reporter who has to be impartial and also get all his/her facts right”. The reporting on the student protest was very biased, a bit like that of the miners’ strike, which was proven to be inaccurate. Thankfully, some people video’d what was actually going on – the kettling, then the charging of the mounted police into the mass of bodies that had nowhere to go.

    So, hopefully the narrator isn’t like a BBC reporter.

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