Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Research

I’m going to a meeting of the London Chapter of the Historical Novel Society this weekend. (If you’re interested in historical novels and you live near London, I recommend it.) The topic for discussion is historical research.

This is a subject dear to my heart. I’ve blogged about it once or twice before, and Jenny Kane has chipped in with her own perspective as an archaeologist turned novelist. So why am I struggling so hard to think of anything that I might say on Saturday?

I think part of the reason is that research is always, in the end, a matter of judgement and, indeed, personal preference. There are some purists out there who seem uncomfortable with any fiction at all in their historical fiction. An author who dares to admit that sometimes they just make stuff up can infuriate this kind of reader/writer. At the other extreme, there are authors who will cheerfully ignore any historical details that get in the way of their stories which can often seem hardly "historical" at all.

We all have different amounts of knowledge and different ideas of what is important. I have just been reading a discussion about historical inaccuracy in which one contributor is furious about the misrepresentation of Finns during World War II. She ridicules an author's ignorance and points out what she sees as blatantly obvious errors. However, it turns out that she is a Finn herself. Her irritation is perfectly genuine and justified, but it is unlikely that any of the English readers that this story is clearly aimed at will be aware of many (if any) of the mistakes. They are still mistakes, of course, and anyone who relies on the story to inform them about the historical facts will end up feeling foolish. But, in fairness, this isn't what the author was doing. Non-fiction accounts of the Eastern Front are available. The novelist is using this as a setting for a work of fiction. If the period detail is accurate enough to carry along the reader, does it matter that it is not exactly right?

The problem here is that what worries one reader will not necessarily worry another. Moving away from historical fiction for a moment, I once read a thriller in which a key element was that a computer memory stick that held a lot of data would be larger than one which contained very little. This is an error so egregious that it is difficult to understand how someone whose novels seem generally well based in the 21st-century could possibly have made such a mistake. However, I was able to overlook this and enjoy the book. My son, on the other hand, found this impossible to ignore and considers this book one of the worst he has read by that author. Returning to history, I recently read a book in which a sharpshooter in a British Napoleonic regiment wore a green jacket. Because this is something that I am writing about (in Burke at Waterloo), I am all too aware that the green jackets were not awarded to individuals within regular regiments but were worn by specialist rifle regiments. This was one of several details in this novel that left me feeling that the writer did not understand his period and that much of what he said had to be viewed with considerable suspicion. When, in the same story, someone threw fivepence (not five pennies) to a beggar, I decided he had pre-empted decimalisation by a century and a half and I almost gave up reading. Others, though, have praised the same book.

Personally, I like history in my books to be accurate. But I'm not a professional historian and, even if I were, I would not necessarily be writing about the period that I'm an expert on. I was very conscious when writing Burke in the Land of Silver that, as an English writer, I was likely to make mistakes with Argentinian history. In fact, Argentinian friends who have read the book have been perfectly comfortable with my interpretation of their history and I am delighted by that. I suspect, though, that they are being generous and that there are errors that they are not pointing out to me.

Getting caught out in straightforward mistakes is something that I think most historical fiction authors do worry about. Fortunately I have an excellent editor who is very good at catching this sort of thing. For example, I had somebody using a Bowie knife in around 1807 which seemed perfectly uncontroversial. She pointed out that the Bowie knife refers specifically to a design by popularised by Jim Bowie who was not born until around 1796. That kind of thing can always catch a writer out and having a second pair of eyes, especially eyes that are familiar with the period, is really useful. Mistakes will still creep in, though. When I was researching the story of James Brooke for The White Rajah, I rather overdid my reading of contemporary source material and, as a result, I was able to pick up small but real mistakes in one of the definitive biographies of his life. Given that the biography was a detailed and well footnoted academic tome, I am sure that the writer would have been embarrassed at the error, but to suggest that anyone can write about historical figures in depth without having a single mistake is, frankly, unrealistic. To insist that my novels (or anybody else's historical fiction) have no mistakes is just silly. Apart from anything else, if I checked every single “fact” in my stories, the stories themselves would never get written. In Cawnpore there is a reference to a regimental colonel. I searched for an online history of the regiment; I looked through the (very long) list of the names of the dead at Cawnpore; I read contemporary accounts; and I checked the definitive modern account. Hours later I still didn't have the name. So you know what? I made one up.


I'm a novelist. I tell lies for a living. The best I can hope for is that the lies aren't too obvious.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post. Enjoy Saturday (wish I was nearer London…)

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  2. Great post. History is rewritten all the time - whether for fact or fiction and as professional liars novelists shouldn't worry too much about bending fact to serve story - IMHO at any rate.

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  3. We probably all worry about what I always call "the guitarist at the back of the bar" (sneering at the band on stage), but at the end of the day it's writing to the story that matters. Of course, I say this having never SOLD a novel (nor even gotten agented yet), so grains of salt all 'round. But I have a good novel, even if it's not a good product. And there's always the WIP ...

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  4. I think the definition of a fact is quite interesting. It is quite clear from looking at them that a panda is a bear and that glass is a solid. Middle class intellectuals enjoy making themselves sound more intelligent than you by pointing out, in a sort of smug way, the “facts” that pandas are in actually members of the racoon family and glass is, technically, a super cooled liquid. The only problem is that pandas ARE bears (or at the very least DNA testing has shown they’re not racoons), and glass IS a solid.

    A more relevant example would be the Union Jack, or should I say Union Flag, as everyone worth inviting to a dinner party knows that it’s only a jack when flown at sea? As it happens, the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty issued an official notice in 1902 that they’d been calling it a jack for years and frankly couldn’t give a toss. However if you say jack in your novel, your smug middleclass intellectuals will scoff, and your lowly masses who have the impertinence to be right probably weren’t going to review your book at the Historical Novel Society anyway.

    Jim Bowie is known, by the kind of people who like to think they know such things, as a frontier knife fighter who designed, carried and popularised the bowie knife. Unfortunately, whilst the Bowie family did make wide bladed flat knives they weren’t bowie knives. Most people credit a different man entirely, James Black, with the creation of the original bowie (albeit, made to Jim Bowie’s specification according to the lore). Whilst a simple google image search will show there’s no universal consensus on what a bowie knife looks like, it’s likely the most popular examples weren’t the one’s carried by Bowie. There’s even debate about whether he really was a knife fighter in the way he’s portrayed.

    It’s true that the term bowie knife was coined in honour of him. So people weren’t calling wide flat knives bowies before the famous Sandbar fight of 1827. However, let’s face it, it’s not that unique of a design and Burke was probably using a wide bladed flat knife which people would now be happy to call a bowie.

    The point is that it would appear to be simultaneously a “fact” that bowie knives existed before 1820, only after 1827, only after 1836 (The Alamo), and that there’s no such thing. Rather depends who you ask I suppose, but whichever one you go with, a significant chunk of your readership will say you're wrong.

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