Forming A Historical Mind-Set For Writing A Historical Novel, by Julian Stockwin
When I’m working on a novel, I find that I imagine myself in past times. I’m a visile: I have to see in my mind’s eye what I’m writing about before I can put the words down. This means I have to mentally go back to the eighteenth century and really feel part of Georgian times.
When I first started writing, I drew up a list of questions to help me with this process of imagination. How did people think of themselves and their place in the world? What things were pleasurable to them? What shocked them? What didn’t shock them? …
I find that I can now cast my mind back in time relatively easily, mentally stripping away the trappings of the twenty first century.
Location research is greatly facilitated for me if there are physical remains such as old buildings. Old maps are invaluable in relocating boundaries that may have changed over time. Museums sometimes have historical models that provide a sort of 3D overview. Old paintings, while sometimes demonstrating artistic licence, are good visual mind-starters.
What a writer must not do, I believe, is to look at another time through contemporary eyes. The eighteenth century was in many ways hard and brutal, both ashore and at sea. It was also a time when humans, with just their wits and courage, undertook great adventures and achieved wondrous feats. Even when I am not specifically writing, I often daydream about the eighteenth century. My wife, Kathy, knows the look well by now, especially when I’m pushing the trolley behind her doing the supermarket shopping.
As well as my extensive reference library of the Georgian era, I find contemporary newspapers a boon. I was able to locate a copy of the Times from Friday, February 8, 1793, the day I had my hero pressganged in a public house in Guildford. This very issue would have been read that night by a roaring fire in the inn. People were anxious about the bloodbath of the French Revolution at its height and the war which had just been declared – and other things – and they’d look inside this newspaper.
There is one important caution: never let your research show. It’s very tempting, having found some wonderful fact or other to go to heroic efforts to incorporate it into you story. Readers want to immerse themselves in the historical context of your book to vicariously experience another age and place but they do not want to feel they are back in a history class.
Beware of anachronisms. These can take many forms. Apart from physical items that may not have been invented at the time your book is set in, words can change their meaning and if you use a word in its contemporary sense the modern meaning may give a very different slant to things.
Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com
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