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February 25, 2009

Weaving Real History into Your Fiction

In connection with BLOOD AND ICE, I’ve promised to give a talk soon on how to weave history and fact into a fictional universe. This book is heavily pinned on both the Crimean War (England vs. Russia, basically, in the early 1850s) and on some weird, but true, biological discoveries in Antarctica today. Guess that’s why I was asked.

And my new book under way takes takes place largely in the 1500s.

So here’s what I’ve learned about the process so far. For one thing, the old saw is true — truth really is stranger (and more convincing) than fiction. The more research I do, the more I stumble upon rich and surprising nuggets that I could never have made up. For example, who’d have guessd, in respect to BLOOD AND ICE, that when Florence Nightingale recruited nurses for the Crimean battlefront, one of the major issues that almost caused a rebellion was the dreadful outfit and unbecoming cap that the nurses were forced to wear?

Or that in the Antarctic, there are fish that live in the lower depths who actualy freeze up if their scales touch the icecap hovering above them?

It’s loads of fun finding this stuff out, but the danger in all this is that you can get lost in your research, too. With Google and the Internet at your fingertips, you can spend hours, weeks, months — your whole life! — just following one link after another, making new connections, learning new things, printing out obscure articles, filing them away, thinking and rethinking. I have some writer friends, who shall go nameless, who have gone down this road … and never reappeared.

And I know other writers who make the mistake of disgorging too much of their raw research and material, interesting though a lot of it was, into the telling of their story. Nothing kills a narrative faster than a massive, overwhelming infusion of non-essential fact. (I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself at times, but I read over my stuff as objectively as I can to see what I really need, and what I slipped in just to show off, or because I was in love with it for some reason.)

What I think readers want is a sense that you, the author, have done your work, and that the history or science you’ve incorporated into the book is sound — up to a point. That point being the place where you depart into the flight of fancy that is your story. I have no actual proof, for instance, that the hemoglobin-free fish of the Antarctic could provide a cure for vampirism, but I’ve done my best to make it seem … plausible.

And that, I think, is a key concept. If you’ve done your job right, your reader will be carried along on a tide of plausibility. You have to try to lay things out so that even the most outlandish developments have arrived by way of an apparently logical concatenation of events or revelations.

What I try to achieve when writing fiction isn’t actually veracity, but verisimilitude. (I think it was the writer Richard Rhodes who came up with that distinction, but I could be wrong.) What I mean by that is simply, not everything in my made-up story will be true, but it will be true enough, and sound believable enough, to carry my readers along without breaking their faith in the story. I recently read a novel in which a female archaeologist in the 1920s said something like “You relationship skills need work,” and that was enough for me to lose faith in the story and in its author. Even a simple anachronism like that can break the spell.

Finally, because I’ve already hogged too much space on this blog, I want to offer up just one more small, practical tip. When doing your research, reading dry historical or scientific material can get wearing after while. For instance, you have no idea how many textbooks and histories I’ve read about the Renaissance for the book I’m working on now. But here’s a secret I’ve learned: once you find a novelist you trust, who seems to have done his or her research pretty scrupulously, read his or her novels to gather the information and local color you need. It can be such a relief! In my case, it’s been like letting Irving Stone (“The Agony and the Ecstasy”) or Sarah Dunant (“The Birth of Venus”) along with several other authors, do a lot of the heavy lifting for me. I don’t rely on them without checking things later — they could be taking liberties the same way I do — but by and large they afford pleasurable perspective and atmosphere and, yes, the occasional bit of very useful information that I can then use in my own work. Writers all owe each other a lot. I certainly know that I do. #

— Robert Masello

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February 25, 2009 07:05
Posted by: Literate Housewife

This post is very interesting. This is the flip side of what I posted last week about what I expect or don't expect from historical fiction. It's actually a topic people are passionate about. I like your taken on the use of history from an author's perspective. I think your advice to authors researching a time period is great advice. I would get tired of doing dry research as a student, too. Reading some historical fiction to get a feel for the time period would be a great help when writing papers as well - as long as you don't rely on the history being completely factual.

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