Writing Historical Fiction Set In Other Cultures, by Gary Worthington
I’m often asked how an American of European ancestry who has never actually lived in India can write historical fiction set in that region, with exclusively Indian characters, and get the details and the atmosphere right. That I’ve succeeded is confirmed in part by Penguin India publishing my novel India Treasures (as The Mangarh Chronicles) and by the book receiving excellent reviews in major Indian newspapers. In addition, many of my books are bought by Indians who’ve read them and who want copies as gifts for relatives or for their own children to learn more about their cultural history.
The novels did take me a huge amount of effort over a couple of decades—so much work and time that I caution anyone else who wants to try something similar to make sure you are ready for a project that is a much longer term commitment than most. Writing good historical fiction is always demanding, but you may well prefer to write shorter novels set in time periods or cultures that don’t require such an enormous investment of your own years and energy.
My India-related novels ended up consuming far more than the five years I’d originally estimated. However, I have a passion for the culture and the history, and after the first few years committed to the research and writing I knew it was part of my life’s mission to see the project through to the end. It helped greatly to have an understanding and supportive spouse.
So exactly how did I do it?
I traveled to India four times over the course of the writing, with the shortest trip being a month and the longest being two months. I’ve since been there a couple more times. I planned and arranged my own travels, and I made the most of my times in the country by meeting as many Indians as I could; by staying in local homes; by interviewing those who had knowledge that might be useful; by traveling by local transportation; by taking detailed daily notes on all aspects of life that I encountered as well as the natural and built environments; and by taking thousands of photos.
I don’t speak any Indian languages, and my efforts to learn Hindi made me realize that I don’t have much aptitude for learning it. Fortunately for me and for other Western travelers English is widely used in India. But I did make an effort to learn commonly used Hindi words as I went along. During the times I traveled in Rajasthan, the main geographical setting of my fiction, I asked Indian friends and acquaintance for the names of the trees, bushes, birds, wildlife, food and so on that I saw.
I made extensive use of books about Indian history, culture, religions, and arts. I’m fortunate in living about an hour away from a major university library with a vast collection of books on India. Whenever I was researching a particular historical period, I typically spent a day in that library once or twice a month, and at the end of the day I checked out and brought home the works that I thought would be most useful. I then took detailed notes and photocopied hundreds of relevant pages. I’m also lucky to have a good public library system and a good college library in my own town, both of which I’ve used heavily.
Over the years I accumulated my own extensive collection of India-related books. Most of my research was prior to the rise of online vendors such as Amazon.com and others, so I found most of the books in second hand bookstores both in America and in England. Occasionally I ordered books out of catalogs of offerings about South Asia, and I bought scores of books in India while traveling there. I’ve also subscribed to two major Indian news magazines and to a couple of more general India-related periodicals.
I became friends with a number of people from India who live in my own area, and I became involved with a local charitable organization funding small scale self-help projects in India, most of whose members are originally from India. I interviewed many of these friends about their lives growing up in India, and I took detailed notes of these sessions. Sometimes my wife and I visited their relatives in India on my travels there.
I taped many television programs about Indian culture and history. Over time, I acquired quite a collection of these recordings. They were especially helpful when I wrote stories set in the 1930s and 1940s about India’s freedom movement and in the mid-1970s about the period of the Emergency declared by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Often I was able to find filmed excerpts showing the political figures I wrote about such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi, so I could see and hear exactly how they dressed, how they spoke, and how they moved.
By spending so much time with Indians and absorbing so much of the culture over the years, I eventually came to be reasonably confident that I’d acquired a good sense of how most Indians typically thought and acted. And my reference library of books and notes made it convenient to find answers to the majority of the questions that arose during the course of my writing.
On occasion I consulted, usually by an exchange of letters or by phone calls, with academic scholars to find out details that I was unable to find elsewhere. Sometimes I just didn’t know something about the culture and wasn’t able to find an adequate answer. Then I usually avoided the issue by writing around it.
Finally, I was fortunate in finding some well-educated persons of Indian origin to read the completed drafts of my novels. Their help was hugely valuable in that they were able to point out any details, fortunately very few, that didn’t seem quite right, so I felt confident about offering the published books to the public as a whole.
I had the luxury of adequate time and financial resources and a supportive wife. But it’s all taken a huge amount of my limited lifetime and energies.
Turkey is another country that I have an affinity for, and I originally planned to write a similar series of novels set in various fascinating historical periods in that region. My wife and I have traveled there a number of times and we have good Turkish friends. I accumulated a fairly large collection of books about Turkish history and the land and culture and studied the language with a tutor.
But I reluctantly decided that to do a satisfactory job of writing from the “inside” about yet another culture with another language would take much more time and effort than I want to expend, given that I’m now in my late sixties. My current writing project is therefore set in England, where there’s a language and a culture I personally feel much more comfortable about using in my historical fiction. As with India, it helps that I’ve traveled to Britain often and have friends there.
James A. Michener, who pioneered the overall format I used in my India historical fiction, did write numerous large books that were similar in covering the entire history of a country (such as Poland) or a state (such as the fictional Centennial). He wrote until he was of an advanced age. But he hired research assistants to help, and for me, his books subsequent to The Source and Hawaii unfortunately became somewhat formulaic. The later novels are too heavy on narrative that tells what happened rather than lively scenes showing what happened, which take much longer to write but involve the reader more. I wouldn’t want that to happen in my own writing.
So I encourage anyone who does feel he or she has the time, energy, and other resources, and who wants to find a big but worthwhile project, to write the historical novels about Turkey that I wish I could write myself. I look forward eagerly to reading them!
Gary Worthington’s author website: www.garyworthington.com
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