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Historical fiction: who rules, researcher or story-teller?

You want to write historical fiction. You are intrigued by how people lived and thought in the past. What was it like to be a Varangian slave in Byzantium? Or a Confederate soldier at Gettysburg? You also have a story to tell. A scene has popped into your head, perhaps that Varangian slave escaping over a wall, or you've become interested in a real historical person, that Confederate soldier, your great-great grandfather. You want to write that story and you know you have to do justice both to the characters and to the history or your novel will fall flat.

Do you need to be one of the world's experts in Byzantine history to write about that slave? Of course not. Will reading Gone with the Wind tell you enough about the American Civil War to write your soldier's story? Of course not. If you don't want to do the research, perhaps you should think twice about writing historical fiction. If you're so absorbed in the history that you aren't really gripped by your characters, perhaps you should be writing non-fiction. But if you want to achieve that balancing act that is a good historical novel, then you need to know what history to put in and what to leave out.

Let's say you're drawn to the idea of a Dutch privateer in the 16th century, one of the famous Sea Beggars who were the early heroes of the Netherlands' Eighty Years War against Spain. You should have, or acquire, a reasonable understanding of who was fighting who and why, what the politics were in each country, and what opinions were held by the population. You don't want to make a major blunder, such as not knowing if the Netherlands had a king or not (it didn't). But more important to know are the daily realities of life: what people wore, what they ate, what songs they sang, what beliefs they held. It is through these details that you will conjure your lost world and bring your characters to life.

Let's assume you've been inspired by that idea of Willem, your privateer. Perhaps you saw him standing on the deck of his ship, his blond beard flying in the wind. Perhaps you saw him boarding a Spanish ship and being confronted with the Captain's intrepid daughter. Your research should begin at his skin and work out. His clothes are woolen and linen, his boots and coat leather. They're heavy, especially when wet, as they will be in a sea fight, or when cold with ice. What food does he have aboard? If he offers a meal to his Spanish captive, she'd better not be served hotdogs and a cup of coffee. You'll have to know what his weapons are. How does his pistol work? What could stop it from working? And what are the consequences of that? Is there enough time to shoot him while he frantically tries to reload? Will his captive, Maria Dolores, have time to flee, leaving him to his fate?

The realities of the everyday things in your chosen time period will shape what your characters can and can't do. This will constrain your own plot choices. It's part of the challenge and joy of writing historical fiction to share with your characters the real problems, the real world, they live in. It stretches your imagination. If you aren't fussy about your details, if you think it's all right to have Willem know latitude and longitude or for Maria Dolores to carry a purse, then you aren't up to the demands of historical fiction. Your characters will not be real, your story will have no life, and you will have failed your readers. If you're that kind of writer, you'll have stopped reading this essay as soon as you hit the word 'research'. But you're that other kind of writer, the historical novelist, the one who cares. You'll have done your mountain of research both for the love of it and for the love of your story. What to do with all those cherished, hard-won facts?

First, use them to develop an historically-grounded plot. Your log-line (story in a nutshell) is: pirate gets girl, pirate loses girl. He gets her by capturing her, that we've seen. How to keep them together? Willem is a privateer, a legalised pirate. Pirates want money, so he sends a ransom demand to Maria Dolores' father, who escaped in the sea battle. You've learned that communication was slow in the 16th century. By the time Willem's ransom demand reaches her father, the two will have spent some months in each other's company. What is Willem's ship like? Typical of the time: small, crowded, dirty, open. No on-board romance likely to blossom there. So where? Back on land, at his sister's house, which like any typical Dutch house has a walled courtyard, the perfect place for man to woo woman. Romance? How, between Protestant and Catholic? Religion in the 16th century could literally be a burning issue. Neither Willem or Maria Dolores will lightly give up their faith for the other. You have to accept this hurdle to their romance. If you love history, you won't outrage historical facts. If you love writing, you won't outrage your readers. Historical realities force you to accept plot developments you might not prefer, but you know, as a writer, that a satisfying reading experience results from the consistent and logical development of your opening situation. Willem and Maria Dolores are opposites: that is their attraction and your burden. Logically, then, you'll make your plot their struggle to overcome their ingrained antipathy.

Once you've created your plot, you begin to write. Knowing the realities of the small, everyday things of your time period now allows you to conjure an authenticity into Willem's and Maria Dolores' lives. Long skirts swept the floor. Willem knows she's hiding in the courtyard because he sees the lines her skirts have made in the sand his sister sprinkles on the paving tiles. Maria Dolores seizes a tankard to brain him – it's leather, not metal, and her escape attempt collapses in laughter. When a Calvinist mob, incited by Willem's sister, bays for the blood of the Catholic woman hidden in their midst, Willem and Maria Dolores are able to escape across the ice in the harbour, for this is the time of the Little Ice Age, when broad rivers froze.

Notice that the sand on the paving tiles, the material of the tankard, the unusually cold winter, are only included because they help propel the plot. As much as you'd love to discuss the construction of the typical Dutch house or the rise of Calvinism in the Netherlands, these aren't pertinent to the actual events in the story. It's pertinent that the leader of the mob has skates, it's pertinent that the gunpowder in Willem's pistol cakes when soaked with ice-water, it's pertinent that the woolen skirts of the time were thick and heavy enough to stop a bullet. But if a beloved fact (the wheat for their bread came from Poland) doesn't propel the action of the story, it doesn't belong. You'll use less than 20% of the facts you've researched in the events of your story, but the other 80% filling your head will give you a heightened understanding of the period, illuminating your characters and their world for you so that what the reader sees is the distillation of your sympathetic imagination, a richness condensed.

The story of Willem and Maria Dolores is fairly remote from the present day, and it will involve a lot of serious historical research. What if your story is set in the 19th or 20th centuries? The problem here is too much information. How to decide what you need to know? If, say, your story is set in Colorado in 1910, you should read some good general histories of the USA from 1900 to 1910, should read the local newspapers on microfilm, if those exist, and perhaps a history of the state. Then look for 'my early days' autobiographies of people living at the time, and also read novels and magazines written from about 1905 to 1910, as these will have shaped your characters' worldviews. If you need to know specific things, such as what automobiles existed then, or how steam locomotives worked, there are plenty of resources. Focus on what your story needs, those facts that will bring it alive, but also know what could not happen in 1910: women could not vote, women never went out bareheaded, but always wore hats, all those sorts of detail you find in ordinary magazines, almanacs, advertisements, and old copies of Marshall Fields or Sears catalogues. You have riches to explore, but don't lose your head.

The good historical novel is the wise selection of the right fact for the right effect. It doesn't surfeit the reader by too much information, it doesn't starve them with too little. But, in the end, it is the story that must rule. If you've swept your readers into Willem's world by judicious use of historical fact, you must hold them there because of Willem himself, because of Maria Dolores, and their struggle to love each other. If you don't engage your readers' emotions, all the research in the world is for nothing. You must make them thrill when Maria Dolores flings her heavy woolen skirts around Willem to save him from the mob's bullets as he frantically reloads, and they must weep when he stoops over her lifeless body on the ice.

Historical fiction, when it is done right, when its facts are compellingly used, will take the reader into the story of real people. For all people are real if they are honestly imagined, whether in the now or in the long ago.

Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com