By SD Sykes, author of Plague Land.
I write historical crime fiction. My novels are set in the 14th century, and, before I get started on this piece, I’d like you to quickly peruse the pile above. This wobbling, precarious stack is some of the reading for my latest novel, set in Venice. I believe you would find a very similar pile on many authors’ desks – if their novel involves research. This research doesn’t have to be historical, of course. It could equally be for a contemporary novel that transports us to an unfamiliar location, or dives us into the realms of science, forensics, espionage or the military. Research is part and parcel of many novelists’ lives, and doesn’t stop at books. In my own case, there have been trips to Venice (tough, I know) – but then ask my husband if these are fun, and he will recount stories of the blister-inducing 48 hour route-march to museums, art galleries, libraries, and churches. Why am I telling you this? Because writers care about research. We really do.
But recently this happened to me, and I began to wonder where research sits in the creative process? I was speaking at a literary festival, when a young woman put up her hand at the end of the session and asked if I would ever consider writing historical fantasy. I replied with a blunt ‘no,’ (… I was tired) but afterwards the question began to play on my mind. Because, where does the line between historical fiction and historical fantasy lie? After all, everything that I write is imagined. I might cling steadfastly to the accuracy of my historical detailing – but I didn’t live in the 14th century. None of my characters were real people. And all of my locations, though based on actual places, are fictional. This led me onto thinking about my unwritten contract with my reader. What does my reader expect from my novels, and what is my obligation to be factually accurate? Am I trying to teach them something about the past, or merely entertain them?
It’s a subject that was brilliantly tackled by the Stephanie Merritt (Stephanie writes the Giordano Bruno detective novels, set in the Tudor age, under the name SJ Parris,) in her Guardian article, ‘How true should historical fiction be?’ http://gu.com/p/3nk7j/stw Stephanie says this. ‘By making clear that you’re writing fiction, you claim the freedom to speculate, to stray beyond what is known, and so breathe new life into long-dead characters. Any attempt to recreate the past requires a leap of imagination. If a bit of poetic licence in historical fiction helps to keep people’s interest in the past alive, so much the better.’ But where does this ‘poetic licence’ begin and end? One person’s leap of imagination, can be another person’s anachronism. As luck would have it, I got talking to some other writers from the Prime Writers group on this very subject, and the following is a selection of their thoughts.
Sarah Vaughan, writing her latest novel, part of which is set in Cornwall 1943-4 says: ‘I found myself agonising over being accurate … to the extent that I’ve gone through every bombing that happened in Cornwall throughout the war and tried to check that if I mention one, it happened at that time. Then I remembered what Kate Atkinson said about Life After Life. “Sometimes to find the truth at the heart of a book, a certain amount of reality falls by the wayside.” She admitted, for instance, that she wasn’t aware of actual bombings taking place at a real address at the time. That’s allowed me to be a little more free. I still think it’s important to be largely precise though.’
I would agree with Sarah. It is important to be ‘largely precise,’ or, as Jon Teckman points out, ‘the crucial thing is not to include such glaring factual errors that they annoy and put off the reader.’ And I think we’ve all had Cari Rosen’s experience, when she says that ‘books I have otherwise loved, have fallen out of my top ranking because of silly little errors that someone (if not the author at least the copy editor) should have spotted.’ As Kerry Drewery says. ‘When/if the reader spots an inaccuracy, it breaks the flow
of reading and takes you away from the story – almost as if it’s reminding you it’s not real – when as a reader I want to be completely immersed in that world.
So, how do we make sure this ‘break in the flow’ doesn’t occur? Most of us would follow Martine Bailey’s example. ‘My own view is that facts in the public domain (dates, place, events) all have to be accurate or we get that jolt of disbelief mentioned by Cari. I personally fact check everything and only put it in if it’s grounded in references. Transporting our readers there and the characters we use are entirely our own artistic licence.’
So, as a group, we were all pretty much agreed – we want to avoid those clunking, stupid mistakes that induce the reader to throw our books down in disgust! But the obligation to be accurate goes further than this, doesn’t it? As Vanessa Lafaye points out, ‘there is some responsibility for us novelists. Take the Sharpe series: real battles, real generals in fictionalised scenes with fictional characters. Some people learned all they know about Napoleonic history from that.’ Vanessa is absolutely right. If we look at the 2015 survey of historical Ficition, carried out by author and blogger M.K Tod at www.writerofhistory.com, the no.3 reason for readers to choose a historical fiction book was ‘to learn about history, without reading non-fiction.’
So, much as we might argue that our novels are works of fiction, we have to accept that some readers’ entire knowledge of our part of history, be it the Black Death, WW2, 18th century England, the Gulf War, or the struggle for civil rights in the USA, comes from our books. We cannot ignore the fact that for many people this is the case – if it’s in a book, then it must be true. We owe it to these readers to get our facts right. But, then again… are we teachers and historians, or writers of fiction?
Because there’s a problem with accuracy, isn’t there? The truth doesn’t always make such a great story. It doesn’t necessarily have the plot, characters and resolution to build a good novel. So, as writers, we have to fill in those gaps. We have to make our stories seem like something that could have happened, even though parts of it didn’t. And somehow, we have to ensure that the reader understands this distinction. I like to think of my own version of the 14th century as being like a show garden at Chelsea flower show. It might look like a real garden, but it’s not. Instead it’s my own construct, created to give the impression of being the 14th century, so that my story can take place in a believable setting.
So, what if anything, have I concluded at the end of all this? What is my own, personal unwritten contract with my reader? Firstly, I strive tirelessly to avoid stupid inaccuracies. Beyond this, I hope my reader will learn about the life and times of the 14th century, with as much precision as I’m able to give. I hope they will go away with an understanding and interest in this part of history. But first and foremost, I hope they will read a novel that entertains them. I hope to write characters that my readers can care about or identify with. And I hope to write a plot that intrigues and delights them. In other words, research aside, what I still care most about is this – writing a good book.