Historical vs contemporary fiction – David Lawlor’s view

David Lawlor authors the very intriguing blog, History with a Twist. It’s full of stories about unexpected events and people, what David calls ‘celebrating the bit players of history’. When I discovered that David’s latest novel has a contemporary setting, I asked him to provide his perspective on the differences he experienced in the writing historical fiction versus contemporary. Here he is to tell us about it.


I heard a joke the other day, which seems quite apt right now – The Past, The Present and The Future walk into a bar … it was tense. Okay, it may not be the best joke ever but as someone who has been writing about the past for quite a while now and who has just dipped his toe into the modern world with my latest novel, I liked that joke.

Tan by David LawlorUp to now, my books have been set in the years between 1914 and 1921, and focus on the adventures of Liam Mannion, a World War One veteran who is fighting for Irish freedom. I have always been drawn to this particular time in Irish history. However, reading about it and conveying it convincingly to others are two very different things.

As every historical fiction author knows, the past truly is another place. When I step into Liam’s world I need maps and photographs to guide me. In my first novel, Tan, I had to familiarise myself with everything from the Western Front, uniforms and equipment, to vehicles, cotton mills in Liverpool… even the blends of pipe tobacco that were smoked.

My second book, The Golden Grave, required less research, primarily because I had done most of it for the first book. The Golden Grave is set in the mudscape of Flanders, although even here I found myself having to contact the Imperial War Museum to try to figure out how many gallons of water a motorised pump would discharge in one hour (I’m sorry to say that I can’t remember the answer, but it helped me out of a hole).

In my third book, A Time of Traitors, I had Liam in London meeting Michael Collins during Collins’s negotiations with Lloyd George to hammer out a peace treaty in the Irish War of Independence.

Trying to fit the plot of the book around historic dates and figures was tricky, but I got there in the end. The great fun about writing historical fiction is that you can immerse yourself in these worlds and get up close with people of historic importance. In a way, such immersion is a kind of comfort blanket – one which I threw aside for my latest novel High Crimes, which is set in modern Dublin.

High Crimes by David LawlorThrowing off that mantle of historical research proved quite a liberating experience. For the first time I could write a scene in which my character travelled across a city without me having to pore over a map to ensure his journey was accurate and that the street my character was standing on actually existed at the time he was supposed to be there.

Gone, too, was the issue of checking the types of cars that people were driving, or the clothes they were wearing, now I could just write away to my heart’s content without any little historical niggles to hold me back.

However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have research to do. My new novel, High Crimes, is a tale of stalkers and sex abusers, and their victims who finally decide to fight back. My stalker is a crane operator who works opposite two blocks of apartments. When he’s not shifting steel and concrete he’s spying on several of the residents. I had to get a sense of how a crane actually operates. Luckily, I found what I needed in a US newspaper article in which a journalist with a good head for heights got up in the cab with the operator and conducted her interview there.

Another lucky break I had was in the location in which I set my crane. Ten minutes from my office is a building site with a crane looking out across the Liffey. This was where I placed my stalker. If, while writing, I had any doubts about the setting or the evolution of a certain scenario, I could pop down at my lunch break and study the setting. More often than not that would be enough to settle my inner plot issues and I could carry on with the writing.

I work in what some would describe as a ‘rough’ part of the city, where drunks and drug addicts are all too familiar. One of my characters, Michael, is a drug addict, so I had plenty of case studies to look at to help me capture his mannerisms.

The other arch villain in my book is a sex abuser. I found plenty of articles and a useful, if rather disturbing, documentary on how paedophiles use the internet to groom their victims, and the measures the police use to try to trap them. These proved a great help in getting under the skin of this loathsome character.

As I mentioned earlier, High Crimes is set in Dublin – the city in which I grew up. It was quite enjoyable referencing parts of the city in the book – places and things that I have become so familiar with down the years… the Dart train that I commute on to and from work, the parks and neighbourhoods in which I have passed so much time. It was great to write about these things and not have that niggle of worry that I somehow had got the geography wrong and would have to scurry back to my research to put my mind at rest.

There certainly is a lot to be said for writing modern fiction – it makes for speedier writing, you can achieve a sense of vibrancy easier, you are more confident with your references to daily life. And yet…

…there is something about the battle to recreate the past that is very appealing. Part of the fun with historical fiction is ensuring you get that detail correct – or at least just enough of that detail to make your story convincing. Really, though, for me, the most important aspects of a story aren’t whether it’s set in the past, present or the future, it’s the plot and the characters – and in many ways they’re timeless.

David LawlorWhat a great perspective, David. Many thanks for guest posting. Of course, now I have to ask: is your next book is going to be historical or contemporary?

David Lawlor’s day job is as an editor with a national newspaper based in Dublin, Ireland. He has been a journalist and editor on newspapers, magazines and periodicals for the past 24 years. David has written three novels following the character Liam Mannion – Tan, set during the Irish War of Independence, The Golden Grave, which is set in the old battlefields of World War One and A Time of Traitors, which follows Liam as he tries to unmask a traitor within the ranks of the IRA.

David’s latest novel is High Crimes. “In Dublin, Ireland, deadly consequences and a rush for vengeance — for one stalker, five victims, and an ex-priest whose sins are catching up with him fast.”

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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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5 Responses

  1. Great post and I imagine must be so much easier writing in your own home town with all that research at your fingertips and fun too! I’m intrigued already about the books on Irish history. After all that is my interest as well @ celticthoughts.com. Now I am excited to look up these books on Amazon. I hope they are available for my kindle?. Thanks for introducing us to David Lawlor.

  2. I agree with your comment, David, that the most important aspects of the story are the characters and the plot. You do those so well, and that’s the reason I’ve enjoyed all of your books so much. It’s a bonus that I learn about another place and time while I’m reading a great story. Good luck with High Crimes.

  3. Thanks for inviting me to contribute to what is a great blog, Mary. In answer to your question, the next book will, hopefully, be historical fiction, following the further adventures of Liam Mannion

  4. You’re right, Brighid, it is easier writing about your home town, but there is something about recreating the past that is also very appealing. If you do get round to reading any of my books, I hope you like them. I’m looking forward to checking out celticthoughts 🙂

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