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Research To Write A Historical Novel: Written Accounts, by Adrian Goldsworthy

How you go about researching your novel obviously depends very much on its subject and style.  If the setting is the recent past, then material should be plentiful – you may even be able to meet and talk to people who were alive at the time.  Recordings of interviews extend this very direct form of eye-witness testimony back further.  Film footage varies in its immediacy – colour and sound make it seem very modern, silent and black and white appears stilted and distant.  Wherever possible it is worth casting your net widely and looking out for anything of the vaguest relevance – flickering images of street scenes or the countryside might well help you to imagine the world inhabited by your characters, as well as giving hints about scenery, objects and fashion.

Written testimony is also much fuller for the last few centuries. Some of it conveniently collected into social histories looking at particular themes, periods or events.  The later part of the eighteenth century saw something of an explosion of individuals writing and publishing their own stories – and even more keeping diaries and journals.  This does make it a lot easier to understand the lives of people from lower down the social scale.  Those with an interest in the military side of things are especially well served.  My own novels rely heavily on the flood of memoirs written by soldiers who served during the Napoleonic Wars.  Many of these have been re-published in recent years, and there are a number of hard-working historians out there going through this material and searching the archives for more.  On the other hand, it is easier to get at material for the more fashionable topics, such as the American Civil War, the Zulu War or either of the World Wars.  The evidence is often there for other periods, but may take more digging out.

Memoirs can be the most vivid reads of these eye-witness accounts, but were sometimes published a long time afterward.  They may contain deliberate exaggeration, or confused memories.  They may also be shaped by the emerging story of that event and be influenced by other accounts or histories.  Letters are especially interesting because they give a snapshot of a moment and may tell you of rumours and the conversations at that time, and better reflect the mood.  Diaries can be even better, since sometimes a person would confide to themselves something they would not like to put in a letter in case it upset a parent or spouse.  On the whole, you will be better placed to understand Gallipoli or the Somme through the things written at the time and not the later accounts shaped by hindsight and the deep symbolism of these battles in subsequent culture.  Even so, the later accounts may tell of things not mentioned at the time – sometimes because they were too dreadful or perhaps because people at the time understood what was happening and so did not need it explained to them.

Anyone who chooses to write about the more distant past will find themselves dealing with far fewer accounts.  On the whole these will be more formal.  Some private letters survive on papyrus or writing-tablets from the Roman world and can be fascinating in their detail, but they tend not to deal with certain things.  Not a single love letter has survived from the Greek or Roman worlds.  This is unlikely to mean that no-one wrote such things – and indeed histories and biographies of the time make it clear that they did – but reminds us that we have a partial picture.  Formally published collections of letters, such as those of Cicero or Pliny the Younger, remain very vivid and immediate but were published posthumously and subject to editing.  They can also be one-sided.  We have thirty books of letters from Cicero to a friend named Atticus but not a single reply.

Personal accounts are fairly rare and histories or biographies are more common, sometimes written by eye-witnesses, but more often not.  The best sources for Alexander the Great were written centuries after his death.  When dealing with these, the novelist faces the same problems as the historian, and has to consider questions of reliability and bias.  However, he or she does not have to deal with them in the same way.  It is really up to the novelist how far he or she wants to stick to the facts. If you happen to like the version of a story presented in a questionable source then there is no reason why you should not use it.  A lot will depend on the sort of book you want to write.  On the other hand, the novelist is at a disadvantage as a historian can review the evidence and then admit that we do not actually know what happened or why.  (A historian should do this rather than pretend certainty).  This is a luxury denied to the novelist, because a character cannot simply walk around a corner and find nothing there.  Things must happen and most likely you will need to explain how they happen, so it is up to the novelist to fill in the gap.  Sometimes this may follow a historian’s theory or best guess, but there is no reason why you should not come up with your own solution.  George MacDonald Fraser was always very good at fitting his Flashman into some of the mysteries surrounding real events.  Historians find the gaps in sources a serious problem, but for novelists these can be good opportunities.


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Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent post. I am working from the opposite direction, in that I am a historian who has done the research for a doctorate and am now using it to write a novel. Some of the richest sources for historians of the more distant past are court records. In my area, witchcraft, they present some of the most interesting narratives and meta-narratives, which it is then exciting to interpret.

    April 5, 2013

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