Researching a substantial novel set in a certain time means reading, checking out, exploring the unavoidable facts of those times - a world war for instance, or the eruption of a volcano. Unless you're writing parody. These substantial and real events have to be right, fixed and immovable. To ignore them, exaggerate them or fantasise with them or create fantasies from them requires a different process. Perhaps an a-historical process
But what about the more fluid cultural social and sensual world which existed around these immovable moments of historical fact? These are elements which will make your historical account or your historical novel unique and at the same time universal to your reader.
If I were making a story about say Pompeii I'd be referring to myth and song as well as to to the destruction of a stone built environment. I did this with The Pathfinder my novel about post-Roman Celtic Britain. To build a real world where people lived and breathed I had to take note of poetry, song and myth and the many artefacts and articles that characterised those times
I hope I succeeded.
But in more recent times the monuments of fact and history are embedded in our meta-world of fiction story speculation personification poetry and the personal fiction of diary memoir and now film and expansive, often exaggerated, press content.
I like to access the perceptions and the sensibilities of a certain time is through its art and – a favourite of mine – it's popular fiction.
As my present novel Lifespan takes place from 1941 to the year 2000 I have a multiplicity of twentieth century sources in terms of pure fiction and biography and autobiography. It has been said many times that biography and autobiography - being selections from lives - are in their own way categories of fiction. It can be said that they are also categories of history and in that carry a certain kind of truth. So the selectivity and possible bias in such sources as biography and autobiography and even diaries make a kind of meta-fiction which is still important to my kind of research
Of course this means for people like me the piles of books to be read and noted grows day by day. Add to that key Internet sites and this adds up to a lot of research to absorb in order to imagine and freely write historical novels that have the ring of truth about them.
Such books and sources a allow the researcher to access the distinctive subtleties of social context and the sensibilities, the assumptions and attitudes of the varied characters she is imagining and growing within the narrative.
Julian McLaren Ross
In some places the line between fact and fiction blurs rather satisfactorily, leaving an historical trail from fact to fiction. I have just discovered that Julian McLaren Ross, whose book - Memoirs of the 40s - I am reading alongside his biography Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia by Paul Willetts – this is the man who was - in terms of distinctive, louche manners and mannerisms - mimicked by Olivia Manning for her dissolute character Prince Yakimov in her Fortunes of War Trilogy. This means, of course that I have to re-read these books...The jury is out as to whether this is a true portrait rather than a caricature.
Even so it does demonstrate how that the true nature of unique characters has impact on the imagined characters in the literature of their contemporary world. This can happen with fiction writers writing in and of their own time like Rosamond Lehman, Graham Greene, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Elizabeth David, Elizabeth Bowen and many more can give us clues to contemporaneous habits, standards, speech modes and values of a time even if our own invented characters emerge from a different inspirational source.
In this lies the imaginative freedom of historical fiction which allows present-day readers with their own modern habits, standards and values, access to the minds of and lives of people in earlier times. So they enjoy reading fiction in a different way from the way they enjoy reading history.