Historical fiction is different…

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.

9 comments on “Historical fiction is different…

  1. M M Bennetts says:

    And if you were determined to embarrass me with praise, be it known that the tips of my ears are now red. Thank you.

  2. Piotr says:

    I think that a good story teller would research regardless of what genre they’re writing it in. Which reminds me, I need to hassle the library staff on sometime before Wednesday as I want to see if they have anything on the Boer War.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, if you’re writing contemporary romance and you’re a woman, probably your research won’t involve several dozen books on military/political history. And it probably won’t include seeking out 200 year old engravings of cities so that you can see what they used to look like, and then comparing those with 200 year old maps to get the lay of the land, then. Or checking to ensure that any plants you name were available in the country then, rather than being recent imports. Or spending a morning finding out what a diachylon plaster is–lucky you!

      However, all that said, one of the great draws of Frederick Forsyth’s books is the meticulous research; he doesn’t ever write a thriller where he hasn’t done most of the componant elements, most of which have the potential to be highly lethal to himself.

  3. Rowenna says:

    And might I add, what I love about Dunnett, O’Brian, and Bennetts is that the research doesn’t show in the writing–it isn’t a tag sticking out of the book’s collar. It just flows right through, organic. Creates the world flawlessly, and the reader wanders into it, rather than having a bibliography flung at them. You’d never know how much time and effort went into it from reading it, it isn’t strained at all.

    Shall we be honest, too, that sometimes the book is an excuse for reasearching even more than is actually necessary? I find myself reading an entire book on a tertiary detail because, well, I want to know…even if it’s never in the final product.

  4. Tara Maya says:

    I am also of the school of thought that when it comes to research, more is more.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, generally it allows us to have a better, rounder picture of their lives…for example, I place great store in learning about the weather and the seasons, because in an essentially agrarian society–which Europe was 200 years ago–that profoundly affected their lives. Not just in what they were going to wear–which is what we think of today–but in whether there were bread riots, for example.

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