Guest blog from Paul Dowswell
I think Historical Fiction is a great way to interest a reader in real history – it puts you in the shoes of people who lived through often terrible times. The sort of terrible times that make exciting and readable stories. I do believe very strongly that historical fiction should be good history so I try my best to be as historically accurate as possible. This involves a period of immersing myself in the era I’m writing about.
Nothing beats a trip to the place that features in your story. Walking the same streets as your characters is fantastically inspirational. I spent an afternoon aboard HMS Trincomalee in Hartlepool – a frigate from the early 19th Century. I got a third of my ‘Powder Monkey’ story about a boy in Nelson’s Navy from that. Likewise, I got lost in the bush outside Sydney, Australia, and once I’d recovered my direction, after about three hours, I managed to write about four chapters of the sequel to ‘Powder Monkey’, ‘Prison Ship’, based on this very experience.
Travel doesn’t have to be expensive. I usually visit places away from peak times and try to stay with friends, or friends of friends, or rent apartments so I don’t have to eat in restaurants. (Much cheaper to cook!)
When you’re on your travels you also meet people who can be very useful to your book. I met an Australian academic who acted as a consultant on my book (introduced via a chat with the National Archive gift shop lady who asked what I was doing in Australia). When I visited Berlin to research my book ‘Sektion 20’, about living in Communist East Germany, I met an artist/actor, through a friend, who became the inspiration for my main character.
I also read vast amounts, to get ideas, and also to make sure I’m keeping within the bounds of historical accuracy. The British Library is an invaluable resource here. I avoid novels when I’m researching a new book (too much scope for plagiarism) but do find films and TV serials very useful for dialogue. Those Jane Austen dramas were good for trying to get a feel for the way people spoke in the early 19th Century when I wrote my books about a boy in Nelson’s Navy. I’m currently writing about the air war in 1943, and films from the era (or shortly after) are an invaluable way in to constructing dialogue that chimes with the way they spoke during the war.
For my latest book ‘Red Shadow’, set in the Kremlin in 1941, I managed to get a cheap flight to Moscow by going in October and found somewhere very reasonable to stay through friends who had been there. Museums and archives weren’t a great deal of use as I speak only three words of Russian. But just walking those streets, seeing those sights and wandering around the many museums was a fantastic inspiration. I also read Vasily Grossman’s ‘Life and Fate’ (set during the Second World War) to get a feel for how ordinary Russians spoke and addressed each other during the war.
The main thing about research though is that it has to serve your story – not the other way round. Just because you know what Stalin’s office in the Kremlin looked like doesn’t mean you have to describe it in great detail. Never get carried away with cramming all those hard won facts into your story. If your characters escape by bus, I think it’s good to know that busses were running at the time, but you don’t need to know what colour the bus company livery was. Ultimately, the most important parts of your story are your plot and your characters. All that research is the wall paper, the background, not the point of it.
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