The research trap

 In Education, Explainer, research, writing
Beware the research trap!

As I’ve been writing this novel, I’ve learned there’s a kind of sliding scale of authenticity when it comes to historical fiction. At one end of the scale, you can simply say your story is set in Wherever in the year Whenever, and then just make everything else up (And why not? It’s fiction!). On the other end of the scale, you make your setting as historically accurate as possible, but just drop a fictional character into it.

I’ve been a fan of fiction that falls at the latter end of the scale ever since I first read Flashman, by George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser did everything he could to be as accurate as possible, when it came to describing a scene. He was a journalist, which essentially means he was an historian, and that was his baseline for his writing. If you look at the cast of characters in Flashman, for example, you’ll see there are double the number of real people in the story compared to the number of fictional characters. But he didn’t let history get in the way of a good yarn, the yarn being that of Harry Flashman, in all his outrageous rakery. Fraser’s successors are writers like CJ Sansom (Dissolution) and Bernard Cornwell (Sharpe’s Eagle), who have created a fictional character (or characters) for insertion into the center of an historical event. The history provides a landscape that is already set (The queen is beheaded! The fortress is lost!), and which the reader may well know about. But the real story is that which happens to the fictional character within that landscape. Occasionally this means that the writer has to adjust history a bit, of course, but  any deviation from the facts is usually pointed out in a meticulous foreword or afterword.

You might say the top end of the scale, when it comes to being meticulous about history, are the likes of Robert Graves (I, Claudius), Hilary Mantel (the Wolf Hall series) and Robert Harris (the Imperium trilogy). I love these writers and I loved reading these works, but I see these books more as works of history with a fictional gloss than historical novels. And, frankly, I think that kind of work is much more difficult to write. The authors are trying to be as true to history as it is possible to be. They’re using real characters (Claudius, Thomas Cromwell and Cicero, respectively) and telling their story in a real historical setting. To me, that’s incredibly restrictive, and if neither the setting nor the characters are fictional, how much fiction can there really be in the narrative? It’s certainly way too intimidating for me to contemplate.

So I’ve set out to be a kind of Fraser/Cornwell/Sansom-type novelist. That’s the aspiration, anyway. And it presents an immediate problem. To write that scene, and create that landscape, I have to know exactly what went on in my chosen time period. What people wore; what they ate, and when; how they went to the bathroom; how they traveled; how much things cost etc, etc. This requires some serious reading, and the more I read, and the more research I do, the more I realize how easy it is to fall down a research hole and never come out. I can spend hours looking at paintings to divine what kind of shoes people wore in 1800, and when fashions for men changed from above-the-knee breeches to long trousers. I can spend days reading collections of letters by the likes of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, and diaries by French emigres touring Massachusetts. I’ve come to realize how much I like history, and how dangerous that can be for the creative process: there’s a temptation to immerse oneself in the warm embrace of history and never emerge.

So, every now and then, I have to cut bait. I have to sit up, and start writing. And that presents a second problem: it means that sometimes, I can’t quite see where my fiction is ending and the real, genuine history begins. I’m not exactly sure when New York decided to erect lamp posts along city streets, rather than string lanterns above them, which they did at first. I’m not dead certain when the Common Council first ruled to pay street sweepers to clear the roads of the mountains of horse manure that piled up during the day. I can’t point to the precise date that developers started to drain the marshland north of Catherine Street that is now St John’s Park, near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel. And it’s not entirely my fault. Documents have gone missing, or been destroyed over the years. Maps of the period are notoriously inaccurate, either because they’re poorly dated, or because they include speculative land plans, or perhaps simply because mapping was an inexact business in 1799. Maps often contradict letters and narratives, and even city records, and they often all contradict each other. This frustrates the journalist-historian in me, and it can bog me down for days, so often the only option is either to avoid describing that thing (whatever it was) or to say ‘forget it”and get writing.  And just make it up as I go along.

This means, of course, that I find myself sliding down that scale a little more each day.

And raises the hell out of the stakes for the story!




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