Happy Sunday and welcome to my stop on the blog tour for The Merest Loss by Steven Neil. My thanks to Rachel at Rachel’s Random Resources for the invitation to join. Author Steven Neil joins me on the blog today to talk about researching and writing historical fiction. But first, here is what The Merest Loss is all about.
A story of love and political intrigue, set against the backdrop of the English hunting shires and the streets of Victorian London and post-revolutionary Paris.
When Harriet Howard becomes Louis Napoleon’s mistress and financial backer and appears at his side in Paris in 1848, it is as if she has emerged from nowhere. How did the English daughter of a Norfolk boot-maker meet the future Emperor? Who is the mysterious Nicholas Sly and what is his hold over Harriet?
Can Harriet meet her obligations and return to her former life and the man she left behind? What is her involvement with British Government secret services? Can Harriet’s friend, jockey Tom Olliver, help her son Martin solve his own mystery: the identity of his father?
The central character is Harriet Howard and the action takes place between 1836 and 1873. The plot centres on Harriet’s relationships with Louis Napoleon and famous Grand National winning jockey, Jem Mason. The backdrop to the action includes significant characters from the age, including Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria and the Duke of Grafton, as well as Emperor Napoleon III. The worlds of horse racing, hunting and government provide the scope for rural settings to contrast with the city scenes of London and Paris and for racing skulduggery to vie with political chicanery.
Researching and writing historical fiction
In many ways, writing historical fiction is no different to writing any other fiction. The author still has to think about the five key elements of novel writing i.e.
- Point of view
In addition to these consideration however, there are particular issues which need to be borne in mind if the historical fiction novel is to come across as a credible representation of the period being described.
In writing 19th century historical fiction, as well as specific research in reference books, I always read widely the dominant fiction of the time e.g. Trollope, Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, to assimilate the sound and feel of the age. I have also developed a number of questions I pose to myself whilst I am researching and planning my novel and I share some of them with you here.
Point of view
What point of view best suits the story you are telling? This seems a rather obvious question but there is a reason why Trollope and Hardy used the omniscient narrator: they wanted to be in complete control of the characters and to manage the reader by knowing everything, by contrast with their characters, who don’t. In this way there is almost a conspiracy between writer and reader at the expense of the characters.
Of course, Trollope and Hardy were living in the 19th century and could sustain an all knowing perspective with reasonable ease. What the contemporary writer has to ask, if they are to write credibly in a 19th century setting, is whether they have done the research necessary to replicate an omniscient narrator. It took me a long time researching to satisfy myself on that point.
Is this turn of events plausible and credible for the time?
What assumptions are being made about the law, the state of politics, the monarchy, the church, the class system?
Do the events fit with what is happening in the historical timeline and background to events e.g. war, peace, political turmoil, the economy, religion.
Readers will suspend disbelief up to a point (albeit different points for different readers), it is, after all, fiction but if it doesn’t ‘ring true’ you may lose your reader.
Did that park, that building, that street, that room actually exist at that time?
Would it have looked like that?
Would the flora and fauna have looked like that?
Would the clothing have been worn in that way?
Would the lighting, heating, glazing, transport means have looked like that?
There is a famous story told by Ian McEwan, who was assiduous in his medical research for the novel Saturday, who was berated by a reader because he had a driver easing his particular Mercedes 500 SEL into first gear, when, according to the complainant, this particular version only came in automatic, so the correct phrase would have been to put it into drive. Some people!
Is it likely that someone would behave like that at that time?
What cultural norms and standards of behaviour existed and are the characters conforming to them?
Does the way someone is behaving fit with what you have already described about their education, social class, sex, prejudices, opinions?
Is there continuity of character; is the character suddenly and inexplicably behaving in a way that the reader will struggle to accept?
Characters can be complex and may sometimes behave unusually, but I am told that one of the most common phrases amongst book club members is along the lines of ‘I didn’t think he/she would have done that and that spoiled the story for me.’ Beware!
Is this how people really spoke at that time?
Would they have used those words?
Are modern idioms creeping into your draft?
Is the way someone is speaking consistent with a character from the 19th century and from chapter to chapter?
As a rule, speakers in the 19th century did not preface their statements with ‘Do you know what’ and other ubiquitous, meaningless phrases but they are so wired in to modern expression that it can sometimes be hard to keep them out.
This is far from an exhaustive set of questions but asking these sorts of questions early in the research period and at the planning stage will save work later on when you are editing. It is very easy to become ‘snow blind’ during the editing phase and I find it much harder to catch glaring errors at a late stage than it is to filter them out at an early stage.
© Steven Neil
Steven Neil has a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics, a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from the Open University and an MA in Creative Writing from Oxford Brookes University. In his working life he has been a bookmaker’s clerk, management tutor, management consultant, bloodstock agent and racehorse breeder. He is married and lives in rural Northamptonshire.