Call it the Hilary Mantel effect or the CJ Sansom effect, but so much fiction is set in the past these days. But how do you find a balance between re-creating the past and telling the story? Are you recreating a world or inventing a world? And should you do it at all? Historical fiction isn’t for the feint hearted. It takes a certain kind of person. David Mitchell, talking about “The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet” said, “It’s tough…I didn’t set out to write a historical novel just for the heck of it – to do that, you’d have to be mad.”
Crime writers aren’t historians. But rich historical detail creates a believable world. If the reader doesn’t believe in the world you’ve created, you’ve lost them before you begin. But research can get in the way of just telling the story. Three books into a series and my last manuscript found me lost in the hell of historical research. I became obsessed with getting every nuance right. Great, for a PhD in say, C19th eugenics or the Crimean War but where oh where was the story?
Margaret Atwood says, stories are in the dark. Inspiration coming in flashes. Going into the narrative is like going down a long dark road. You can’t see the way ahead. History provides novelists with a wealth of material but it can also be a deadly distraction, dragging you further into the dark – killing the story and killing the will to live – as the writer grapples with hell of the detail. I learnt the hard way. Two years on and the book still wasn’t finished and I was way over my deadline. Atmospheric, rich in detail maybe but most publishers want books quickly (one a year, ideally) driven by the hard facts of “the market” especially if it’s a series. So what have I learnt from my mistakes?
Become an expert but wear your knowledge lightly.
Don’t let your obsession with C18th cider making, water tanks, funny words for sex in the 1840s, or whatever, get in the way of writing the story.
Do what crime writer Walter Mosely says. Write first. Do the research second.
You can fudge it, go back, edit and do it later… but do it all later.
Or go for it, be brave – and write something else entirely!
D E Meredith is the author of the Hatton and Roumande series featuring the first forensic scientist and is currently writing a contemporary novel set in Rwanda.