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.


  1. Hi Jennifer, not dry and dull, but so rich and engrossing, it sometimes becomes an end in itself. Love the North-west and have spent many happy weeks there. sometimes going round local history society displays. Anne Stenhouse

  2. Ullapool is one of the best museums, i think. Not a huge amount on display but vast quantities of material for research. I'm tremendously in awe of those who do manage it, I should say.