Monday, July 14, 2014

Based On Fact, Written As Fiction

How much fact do you need in historical fiction?

Some, to be sure. Readers have at least a slight understanding of the time period you're writing about, and they are likely have a sense of what was happening in the world in, say, the Regency period or the First World War or the American revolution.

But isn't history dull and plodding?

Too much of it could be when you're writing a novel. Novels need a story at their core, a narrative arc that takes the reader from exposition through climax to close. Yet you want your novel to follow the facts of history so you don't end up with plot holes that make no sense because what you've written would have been impossible, or a certain character was dead by the time your novel opens. So you need history, but how much?

In today's Irish Times, a group of authors discuss their use of historical research in novel writing. They all have different styles, and make different uses of what they uncover, but the principle they follow is the same. When writing a novel, focus on the story. That is why the reader is with you. If they wanted all the history, they'd pick up some non-fiction and make a thorough study.

Depending on which author is offering an opinion, you would want to either conduct full research before writing, while writing, or after the first draft.

Whatever works for you is the essence of the advice. If you tend to get bogged down in details, you would probably do well to write the story first, to move the characters through your various machinations to create a good yarn, and then verify that what you have could have happened. You'll be asking a reader to suspend disbelief and you can't stretch them too far or they won't buy it and then, well, no one buys it and that's the end of selling through and good luck getting a second book published.

For some, the historical research is where they find their story, somewhere in some obscure incident that makes the author ask "What if?". You might be reading a treatise on the Dublin Lockout and wonder what if one of the women working at the soup kitchen was the daughter of a fierce loyalist and what if that fierce loyalist was really an old Fenian waiting for the right moment to spring a rebellion? A TERRIBLE BEAUTY is born.

There are, then, no hard and fast rules when writing historical fiction in regard to how to do the research. That research must be done is certain, but how it is done and how it is incorporated into the novel depends on the author and how the author works best.

The main requirement for writing historical fiction is the same as that for writing any sort of fiction. There has to be a story that the reader can get lost in, and the world that the writer creates for the reader has to be believable.

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