Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Too Much Information - More Thoughts on Historical Research

I said I’d come back to the subject of historical research and here I am.

At the moment I’m reading Catherine Bailey’s The Secret Rooms, about the mystery of Belvoir Castle. I’m about a hundred pages in and to be honest most of those first hundred pages seems to have been about her research process rather than what she found. I confess: I’ve starting skipping bits so that we get to the mystery more quickly. (Do we really need to know what the weather was on that day she first skimmed her card through the automatic door into the National Archives at Kew? Or where she met the Duchess for an interview?)

Research is a funny thing. If you’ve done it properly your reader shouldn’t notice. If you’ve done it badly, we certainly will. Ms Bailey is writing non-fiction, of course; but she made me realise that in both fact and fiction you shouldn’t allow yourself to intrude. I want to know about the people involved in this great mystery and we’re slow getting to the point.

Up to a point I sympathise. After all those hours of research it must be tempting to use as many fascinating snippets of information as possible, even if either they aren’t directly relevant to the project in hand, or you have five quotes which will illustrate your point (especially if you only need one).

Back to Ullapool Museum and Mrs Fraser’s records of the men of Lochbroom who went off to the Great War. She included, as far as she was able, every single one of them. We know their war records, their families, their education. For some of them we know very much more.

The Fowlers of Inverbroom Estate lost two sons. Because they were the gentry their deaths were more extensively reported than those of the estate workers (unfair, I know, but this is a piece about historic research not social justice). Captain Alan Fowler’s life and his return in death are outlined in a long and detailed piece in the local paper. The grieving widow, the assembled dignitaries, the elderly gardener who served three generation of the family at Inverbroom House - they’re all there in Ullapool Museum.

On the way back south we passed Inverbroom Lodge. You can just about see it through the trees. And if you have the imagination you can see the community assembled for the funeral, the perfect set
ting for a story, perhaps, about those of whom we know little.

I’m still not sure that I have the staying power for that kind of research, but I may yet give historical fiction a go. Fact or fiction, however, I’ll try not to let the many things I discover over-ride the story. Catherine Bailey - please take note.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Just Too Lazy To Write Historicals...

I don’t write historical fiction, or not at great length; and I have nothing but admiration for those who do. It isn’t that I don’t find inspiration in historic places, or characters, or time because the opposite is true.

I’ve had a couple of short stories published with historic settings and over the years I’ve invented plots and crafted characters in Jacobite Scotland and in post-World War I England, alongside a rather nifty (if I say it myself) time-slip. But even as I amused myself on car journeys by indulging in quite complex characterisation for these ideas, I knew that I would never even attempt to write any of them.

It’s because I’m too lazy. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this elsewhere. I regularly read books set in the past and I pick out the anachronisms, some of them horrendous. Sometimes I even go and look up the date that the first snowdrop was imported into the British Isles (it’s the early sixteenth century by the way, so your Celtic hero couldn’t have handed a bunch to his love).

These mistakes irritate me and I don’t to be someone who makes them, even though I’ve never been one to let a minor detail get in the way of my plot and I regularly shift geography round to suit my purposes. But I can’t bear the idea of galloping through a full-length novel without knowing what kind of saddle belonged in what place at what time, or how long it would take to travel from Paris to London in 1820; and the effort involved in following these up is just too great.

I won’t say all this changed on a recent visit to Ullapool Museum, way up in the north of Scotland, but I did stop and think. With time to kill I sat down on an old church pew and began to leaf through some of the documents available there. It’s an amazing resource. Photocopies of old parish records, school rolls, newspapers, bills, fishery accounts, old maps and so on, all valuable to the public for reference.

I’ll write at a later date about the detail of what I found in those fifteen minutes or so, but  was very struck by its richness. Here’s just one example: in 1921 a Mrs Fraser collated information on every local soldier lost in the Great War - their photos, their war records, names of other members of their families who served, comments for their friends and excerpts from the letters sent by their commanding officers (many of whom will have met the same fate in their turn).

Both moving and richly rewarding, it’s the kind of thing that made me think that historical research is not so dull and dry after all.