Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (January 2013)
Writing Historical Novels launched on January 1st with a diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco as monthly contributors. Each monthly contributor now has their first Writing Historical Novels article online.
Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.
The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:
– provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to
– relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.
This month’s articles and writing my historical novel
Emma Darwin wrote: “The thing is, you’re writing fiction – historical fiction – not fictional history. The worst writing you’ll ever do is what you write when you’ve got a history book in the other hand. The best is when your characters and their points of view are so alive to you that of course you write what they see and how they see it: their voices filling that panelled room or smoky alehouse. Story is king: it just happens that the stuff of your story comes from the past.”
Eva Stachniak wrote: “As soon as I knew that I wanted to write a novel about Catherine the Great, I gave myself three months to do extensive research on the historical Catherine and the period in which she lived. I started with Catherine’s biographies, both recent and older ones, downloading 18th and 19th century books into my e-reader, taking advantage of the fact that old rare books are being extensively digitized and made available through major library portals. I read scholarly articles on various aspects of Catherine’s reign, her political conquests, her art collection, her gardening. I also read her own writing: memoirs and numerous letters which have preserved her voice from different stages of her life.”
Stephanie Cowell wrote: “It was a rather terrifying moment in my writing life. I had been asked to read from my novel Marrying Mozart at a scholarly conference: the Mozart Society of America. Here were a group of people who had dedicated their lives to studying aspects of Mozart’s life and music. (One or two were so scholarly that I have no idea what they were saying!) I got up rather tremulously and decided to be honest. I told them, “Thank you for all your hard work. I take your work, mix it with a little imagination and turn it into fiction.” And to great surprise, they loved the scenes I read.”
Expanding on Emma Darwin’s point, writing a historical novel as though it were a typical non-fiction history book or littering your novel with details which do not contribute in a purposeful way to your story is going to result in a dull story. Knowledge from your research should be used in the service of showing your story. Many novelists are tempted to include a lot of things simply because they have come across them in their research.
I am currently in the midst of drafting my first historical novel a teenage boy living in Bydgoszcz (pronounced: bidgost) in western Poland in 1939. Upon the outbreak of war with Germany, he discovers he was adopted when his biological parents attempt to take him to Berlin to escape the war. However, his loyalty is with the family he grew up with in Bydgoszcz.
My research so far has included such things as reading academic books about the invasion and occupation of Poland, and Polish-German relations in the decades leading up to WW2; exploring the setting using satellite imagery and the street view function on Google Maps and comparing this to maps from 1939; reading books about Poland to get a wider sense of everyday life in 1939 Bydgoszcz; searching key terms online and sorting through the results; finding relevant photos and videos online from 1939 and earlier; reading memoirs which cover WW2 Poland, with an emphasis on Septmeber to December 1939; researching the German army and SS, including the specific regiments in Bydgoszcz in 1939 where possible; cooking recipes from a traditional Polish cook book to better understand the kinds of food my characters might eat and how those foods are prepared; and so on. Eva Stachniak also sent me a batch of Polish language links I was able to translate with Google Translate.
I have a great map of Bydgoszcz from 1939 and a German version of the same map, with repurposed buildings and locations of importance to the Germans marked in. The German version even has the fold marks and dirt stains which seem to indicate it was likely carried in the pocket of a German occupier in Bydgoszcz. I had an A3 printout of this map laminated and I use this to plot where real events took place, based on recorded first-hand accounts and details provided in scholarly books, and to plan and track the movements of my fictional characters around Bydgoszcz, so I can manage interactions between real events and fictional characters. For some real events I can plot street-by-street movements; match 1939 photos, or pre/post 1939 photos, to specific streets and buildings; navigate around those streets in Google Maps street view, where sometimes the same buildings still stand today. This allows me to visualise the story like a movie.
As Eva had done with her novel The Winter Palace, about Catherine the Great of Russia, I am bringing together a myriad of source material to help me build a better understanding of that time and place, and the people in it, rather than reading a few books and building on a rhetorical narrative advanced by a particular historian or grouping of historians – and there are inconsistencies and disputes between different accounts by historians that I’ve had to navigate to build up an understanding of things that happened, things which might have happened and other things that might plausibly be able to happen in my novel without creating major contradictions with what actually happened. My research and writing process is not quite as simple as Stephanie Cowell’s modest characterisation of what she does as taking the work of historians and adding a little imagination.
I came across the following on the author website of Anthony Riches, where his novels are praised by Conn Iggulden: “Some authors are better historians than storytellers. Anthony Riches is brilliant at both.” This is what I’m aiming for with my novel. Beyond all the research and the historical setting it’s the story of a teenage boy trying to put his family back together in the face of adversity.
Writing Historical Novels