Oh is it really?
Well, yes. Because it’s not just about sitting down and writing whatever pops into the old head, it’s about a thing called research. Lots of it. My dear friend, the late Dorothy Dunnett, didn’t think five years’ worth of research too much for one book.
And I suspect that would be an opinion shared by the 2009 Booker winner, Hilary Mantel.
Obviously, the amount of research will vary from author to author. Ditto the degree of accuracy with which they write about a period.
I’ve been studying the period of the early 19th century for about twenty years now. And my bibliography continues to swell. I reckon that perhaps May 1812 had a bibliography of about a hundred titles. And that’s not including all the site visits–museums, art galleries, places I wished to feature in the books, costume museums, and the reading of the newspapers of the time.
The new book, Of Honest Fame, has expanded on that–and added another probably fifty titles.
So yes, you might say I fall into the Dorothy Dunnett category of “excess means I know the answers”.
Patrick O’Brian was another such stickler for historical knowledge and detail. And it shows in his work. He knew everything. And out of that everything, he recreated a fictional world which was not just historically accurate, but steeped in the mores and customs of the time, one that conveyed their morals, their attitudes, their vision of the world.
And each book of his was better, because he was already building on the foundation of knowledge and understanding he’d accrued for books one, two, three… and then added his newest research to that. Same with Dorothy…
I admire them both so much. I admire their willingness to walk the straight line that history dictates, and not stray from it–to think as they thought 200 or 400 years ago and keep within those boundaries even to the most minute detail, and yet, write the most dazzling novels which seem to grow from the very heart of their periods.
But it’s difficult…and different.