not talking about the big stuff. James Burke really was a spy; he really was in
Argentina ahead of the invasion, which really did happen pretty much exactly as
described in my book. James Brooke did become ruler of Sarawak; there really
was a Chinese rebellion; the pirates really were massacred. I’m worrying about
the little details.
authors (and my suspicion is that it is authors rather than readers) revel in
the tiny details. If you take the trouble, you can establish what the weather
was in London on a given day in (say) 1850. So if you write It was a dark and stormy night you can
check to see that it was. And I know published authors who will change the line
if it wasn’t.
is no way I would ever do that. If I want the face of my villain illuminated by
a flash of lightning, I’ll put it in. In the first chapter of The White Rajah there’s a storm at sea.
I put it in to help establish the characters (and to get a bit of excitement
into what might otherwise have been a dull part of the narrative). Was there
such a storm? I don’t know and I don’t care. Storms were common and led to
situations like the one I described. If someone told me I had the details of
the rigging wrong, I’d change them (and many a happy day has been spent in the
National Maritime Museum trying to get them right). But a particular storm on a
particular day? I really don’t care.
did I spend a couple of hours last week trying to establish where the Duke of
Wellington lived in Brussels in the run-up to Waterloo? And then went on to
Google Earth to have a look at the street now? I’m really not sure. It only
features in passing in the story, but I wanted to be able to imagine taking a
carriage to a party there and, to do that, I needed to know where I was going.
As I lose
myself in peculiar little bits of research, I often wonder what difference they
make to the finished article. In The White
Rajah some of the dialogue includes actual words written by the characters
themselves. I haven’t credited each use of letters or diaries and I struggle
now to pick them out, but I felt they helped me to keep my own dialogue more in
period. Do readers notice? Do they care? Does it matter?
be that historical accuracy gets in the way of good story-telling. One Amazon
critic considers that details of colonial administration in Sarawak make the book
a big yawn. (I think that was his phrase: I can be pardoned for not going back
and checking.) But, for me, the details of how Brooke attempted to establish a
postal service (all true) were one of the parts I particularly enjoyed. This isn’t
a Boy’s Own Paper adventure: it
really happened and in between fighting pirates (true) and putting down
rebellion (true), they really did try to set up a post office. Details such as
the flowers available for the garden and the armaments on the boat are true too
– and a lot of time was spent scouring picture books and the internet to get
things right. But then there’s the pet orang-utan, which is a complete fiction.
It’s a story, after all.
of the value of getting details right is that it helps get the made-up bits
right too. So I was trying to make the negotiations that led to Brooke becoming
ruler a bit less dull than they really were and I decided that someone might
try to murder Brooke by poisoning him. Only after the book was published did
someone in Kuching write to me to say that just such a plot actually happened.
I don’t think this was just a lucky guess. Getting into the heads of the real
characters meant that sometimes I could act like them, even when there were no published
facts to guide me.
writing this in an attempt to put off writing a scene set in the Duchess of
Richmond’s Ball on the eve of Waterloo. It’s one of the most famous balls in
history and I know I’m going to get it wrong and it worries me. It probably
shouldn’t: I’ve just been watching a scene from a film of the battle which
features the ball and it’s just about as wrong as it could be and, as far as I
know, no one cares. But I’ve already read a lot about it and I’ll read more and
I’m wondering about having a go at reading Vanity
Fair, which features it. And then it will be a few paragraphs and it will
probably still have a mistake in it.
the first edition of The White Rajah
I wrote ‘hansom cab’ when I meant ‘hackney cab’ and a well-regarded critic took
me to task for putting the cab on the street a few years before it could have
been there. So somebody cares, if only to maintain their illusion of
superiority. I can’t say I was grateful to that critic, but we need her and
people like her, because it’s easy to slip from historical fiction to fantasy.
But in the end, I still can’t give a precise answer to my opening question: how
much does historical accuracy matter?