Friday, 31 August 2018

Historical Novel Society Talk

Straight after the launch of my thirteenth book I was asked to speak at the Historical Novel Society's annual conference where I shared a panel with fellow Old Salt Press writers Linda Collison and Antoine Vanner. The theme we were given was Getting it Right in Nautical Fiction, and I wondered if the following notes made before my talk might be of interest.

Before we talk about getting it right, let us first consider what can go wrong. And here, rather surprisingly, the major weakness is usually not what you don't know, but what you do. Or, to be more precise, what you think you know.

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Sir Home Riggs Popham
No one sets out to write any form of historical fiction without some degree of love for the subject. With time and dedication a thorough understanding of the basics develops; this is the groundwork on which future reading will be based when writing about your chosen era (a taxi driver might refer to it as “the knowledge”). Future research is likely to concentrate on areas specific to whatever book you are writing at the time; I've just finished working on Sealed Orders: a novel that encounters the aftermath of Sir Home Popham's re-taking of Cape Town, so have been reading extensively about the man and that particular area of the Napoleonic war. But I had to be careful not to switch all attention to the new theatre and neglect my core knowledge because, even in history, things can change.

Take HMS Victory as an example; not many ships can have received so much attention from historians and researchers alike yet only in the last few years her colour scheme has been altered to match that of recent findings. Even the site of Nelson's death on the orlop deck, a place venerated by many for over two hundred years, has been found to be incorrect and moved twenty-five feet further forward.
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Victory in the midst of her repaint.

In the last few years research by the late Colin White revealed that the accepted order of battle for Jervis' action off Cape St Vincent was also wrong, while less dramatic theories, such as the reason for painting a warship's scuttles red – to disguise the blood – are constantly being challenged.

To some extent we have no control over these changes; however up to date we stay with modern research, new evidence will emerge after a book is published and, unless each title remains in a constant state of revision, it can become out of date. What is less excusable are straightforward errors and, there again it is in the groundwork, the basic research, where mistakes most often occur.

New research is simply easier to get right as it involves more recent reading and does not suffer from the brain's tendency to forget. You might be unlikely to confuse the armament of a ship-of-the-line with that of a frigate, or start introducing radar and outboard motors to the Age of Sail, but even the most basic facts should be checked. In this I am strangely blessed by working with a copy editor who knows nothing about ships, the sea or the Georgian era in general. And there are so many surprising facts that I'm constantly getting little notes saying “Surely not,” “Is this right?” or “Are you certain?” and usually I am but, unless there is absolutely no doubt in my mind, I go back and check.

In a different life, I worked in the music trade dealing mainly with string orchestral instruments. It is a field where knowledge is valuable and I soon learned there were some who appeared to have an encyclopaedic mind and hardly touched a reference book, and others who were constantly thumbing through one or other of the standard volumes used for identifying and valuing instruments. I soon discovered the second group knew a lot more than the first, and that became my definition of an expert; someone who is prepared to check. (And, I might add, someone who is prepared to share their knowledge.)

So what is the best way of carrying out research? Obviously non-fiction books are a major source although, as I have mentioned, even the best can go out of date. And then there is the internet...

Now, that really is a two-edged sword. On the plus side, so much information is now available that is solid, reliable and, in many cases, free. Each week it seems another museum opens its archives to the public and the amount of official government data being released is also growing. Books published at the time can also be downloaded; in the past these would have cost a small fortune and have been difficult to locate, but now they can be accessed as electronic files through sites such as Project Gutenberg. Official reports, accounts, newspapers, parish records – even log books can also be read, in fact I would say there has never been a better time for those wishing to research a particular period or subject. But be warned, while the internet provides a mass of good information, it is also a rich source of bad.

File:Contemporary wife selling print georgian scrapbook 1949.jpgMake sure what you are reading really is contemporary, just because it is “an old book” published perhaps only thirty or forty years after a particular event, it might not be as accurate as a truly contemporary account. The Victorians were rascals when it came to tidying up history – you only have to look at the “Kiss Me Hardy” – “Kismet Hardy” controversy to realise that.

And forums, although usually well intentioned, can be a mine of misinformation and a place where facts effortlessly merge with opinion. (There are even some who delight in quoting historical fiction books as the source of their knowledge, which is a dangerous path indeed!)

Join forums, by all means, and post, if you think it will heighten your profile, which it probably will. Obviously be sure any facts you quote are correct – and you have at least three solid references to back them up. But be very wary of “new information” or “recent theories” quoted by others. Investigate them if you will but, unless or until they can be equally verified, treat them like the gossip they may well be.

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One more point about research, you will learn things, sometimes – often – amazing things, and the temptation to use all of these little diamonds is strong. But the reader will be unimpressed by how much you know unless that information is relevant, and can be incorporated into a story. Throw in too many facts and the book becomes non-fiction, and bad non-fiction at that. So use your diamonds sparingly, put them in places where they can truly shine and be properly appreciated.

So, now you have your information, what are you going to do with it? Once more, let's start with the basics. Ignoring promotion and publicity, the writing process can be broken down to three distinct sections:

Planning and research (including plotting)
Drafting the story

There will inevitably be some degree of merging; however strong your plot outline, you may well discover a wrinkle that will make it so much better when actually writing the story, while editing, both for style and content, begins with the first sentence. But, to my mind, if any one of these sections is ignored, the other two automatically become that much harder, and when writing becomes hard, mistakes are more likely.

The planning stage is where research is most important and a framework for your story can be built on solid facts. That can almost be broken down into two smaller stages; once the framework is secure, and you truly know the time, place and personalities you are dealing with, building a story can begin and will be easier to write knowing you are on solid ground and using sound materials.

By editing, I am not referring to line, copy or proofing as such, but altering the story so that it works within your frame. There are those who stretch history – even one highly regarded HNF author was guilty of this by using a well known historical ship on a particular station at a time when she would actually have been many miles away. (I might add he also set three books in the same year, so allowing his protagonists to be simultaneously on opposite sides of the world.) But we are writing historical fiction, rather than fact, so a degree of licence is allowed, especially if any deviations are mentioned in the end matter, although usually it is as easy to get things right as wrong. I also find accuracy to be rather more satisfying.

File:First letter of Nelson Copenhagen.jpgAnd there is a final point, one that is probably personal, but I still think valid. No one takes the trouble to write about a particular time or event without some degree of empathy for the subject. Indeed, it is what started most of us off and its power remains for as long as we work. It is hard to read reports, accounts and in some cases very personal letters from those actually involved without developing a feeling for the people that made our fiction possible. Frankly I think we owe it to them to get it right, and tell as much of their story as our own.


  1. Great content, and well-delivered. Still, I missed the cannon ball...

  2. Thanks, but I can't watch the video - much happier in front of a keyboard...


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