Making up people, places and events is the first-order task of the novelist. Novelists writing historical fiction, however, almost invariably draw on real people, residing in real places and living through real events. But, how do writers ensure that the fictional parts of a story mesh with reality?
Consider this example:
Hugo sat alone at an outside table belonging to the small brasserie in the Place des Charmes drinking his coffee. He watched the white-aproned waiters scurrying from table to table, trays held head-high on upturned hands. He studied the cafe’s customers seated under the sun-shading awning – businessmen, couples, friends – but not her. Would Nicolette come?
The question is this: Will the reader think that this scene is set in a French square? Probably. But the fact of the matter is that I just made up Place des Charmes.
The example illustrates a point that is perfectly general; it applies to all novels, whether historical or not. All the novelist has to do is make the reader believe the character is situated in whatever environment suits the author’s purpose. The key word is, of course, believe. The writer must conjure up enough of the flavour of a place or time to be convincing. If, however, he slips too far into historical (or other factual) inaccuracies, the reader can be jarred out of his enjoyment of the story, and, if noticeable errors pop up too often, become sufficiently annoyed to quit reading.
My novels are set in nineteenth century England. To avoid any ‘jarring’ possibilities, I researched Victorian dress, studied the locations used in my story, and ensured that dialogue reflected then-current colloquialisms. It is relatively easy these days to research all these aspects of Victorian life online. I suspect the same holds true for other places and other times. Being ‘believable’ for scene-setting and general background, then, even if not always one-hundred percent historically accurate as with the Place des Charmes, should be within the compass of any serious author.
Matters become more complicated when a deceased person (say, Queen Victoria), a real place (Taj Mahal) or a past event (World War II), features prominently in a story, as is usually the case in historical novels. The same principle – be believable but do not jar – still applies. But, unlike the easily-swallowed Place des Charmes, all readers will know something about such recognizable subject matter and many people will know a great deal. In consequence, authors must be much more careful and thorough in their research to avoid crossing the red-line between believable and jarring. The following two examples illustrate how I dealt with this in my own work.
Much of my first book, Immortalised to Death, scheduled for publication by Level Best Books in September, 2023, takes place in Gadshill Place, Charles Dickens’s home in Kent, less than an hour’s train ride from London. I visited the house to make sure that the book’s description of his home was as faithful to the original as possible. I actually stood in his study where the crime in my story occurs; I walked down the drive and crossed Gravesend Road for a glass of ale in The Falstaff Inn, the scene of another incident; and I surveyed the house’s surroundings, especially the route via Forge Lane to Higham railway station, the link to London used by several characters in the book. By the time I’d finished my one-day visit, I felt comfortable that what I wrote about the novelist’s home and its setting would be close to one hundred percent accurate and accepted without question by most readers, even those who have toured Gadshill Place themselves.
Charles Darwin features prominently in my second book, Fatally Inferior (scheduled to appear in 2025). While he does not appear as a major character, his presence pervades the story. Everyone knows about Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution so serious research was required. My primary source was the excellent, two volume biography by Janet Browne, Voyaging (1995) and The Power of Place (2002). I also made great use of The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1958), a more personal, fascinating and shorter account of his life. And naturally, I devoured The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, the two books that play a role in my story.
Once the above were read and absorbed, I felt confident that what I wrote about the great man and his writings would be historically accurate. But that was not the end of the matter. I also had to make sure that the way in which his presence influenced my story was believable. After publication of The Origin of Species in 1859, Darwin was bombarded with scathing reviews in academic journals, blistering editorials in the leading newspapers and crude cartoons in the cheaper broadsheets. It was not then a huge (jarring) leap to imagine that one of the anti-evolution, religious zealots would be prompted to send a nasty letter to him threatening harm to one of his family members, the event that launches the story in Fatally Inferior. Pure fiction, but believable (I hope).
A final word. Drawing the line between believable and jarring may sound like a simple practical rule to follow. Not so. It involves a huge element of judgement. Authors will certainly err on occasion. In my writing, I risk jarring the reader only when it is absolutely essential for the story and even then, I try to camouflage my departures from the truth; otherwise, I strive to be as historically accurate as possible.
Many thanks for sharing your experience, Lyn. And best wishes for Immortalised to Death.
Immortalised to Death by Lyn Squire ~~ Death strikes England’s foremost novelist, his latest tale only half told. Was he murdered because someone feared a ruinous revelation? Or was it revenge for some past misdeed? Set in the Kent countryside and London slums of 1870, Immortalised to Death embeds an ingenious solution to Charles Dickens’s unfinished The Mystery of Edwin Drood within the evolving and ultimately tragic consequences of a broader mystery surrounding the author himself. Debut author Lyn Squire kicks off his fascinating Dunston Burnett Trilogy with legendary Victorian novelist Charles Dickens dead at his desk, pen still in hand. Convinced that the identity of Dickens’s murderer lies in the book’s missing denouement, Dickens’s nephew and unlikely detective, Dunston Burnett, sets out to complete his uncle’s half-finished novel. A stunning revelation crowns this tale about the mysterious death of England’s greatest novelist, and exposes the author’s long-held secret.
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel is THE ADMIRAL’S WIFE, a dual timeline set in Hong Kong. Mary’s other novels, PARIS IN RUINS, TIME AND REGRET, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.