Thoughts on My Own Historical Fiction

I’ve dabbled in historical fiction over the years, but never too seriously. While I enjoy reading it, I have only written one novella in that genre: From Daisy with Love which is set in Durban during the First World War. Last weekend I was lucky enough to attend a writing seminar on historical fiction, and now my way forward looks set to expand along a slightly different path.

Back in 2004, my first attempt at writing my own family’s history derailed itself when I ran out of actual facts. My ancestors had arrived in Africa in 1880 from Manchester as part of a somewhat dodgy settler scheme. I found plenty of information in local archives about the Willowfountain Settler Scheme itself, but not much of it mentioned my family. Apart from one or two anecdotes and some letters of complaint that my great-great-grandfather wrote to the Land and Immigration Board, there was nothing else. In the back of my mind I had my father’s own stories about his childhood, his parents and his aged grandparents who lived up the road in a big house, but that was all.

What had happened to change the family’s fortunes between 1880 and 1928 when my father was born? I had no idea, but my mind raced to fill in the possible details. Before I knew it, I had rewritten the family history as a fictional account of what might have been.

I later added this historical piece to a contemporary novel I was writing, and tried unsuccessfully to merge the two stories. It didn’t exactly work out and my attempts to flog it to various publishers and agents was… well, embarrassing really. I eventually abandoned it and moved on to other writing projects which have been more successful.

From time to time I’ve dredged out the old story and tried again, thinking that perhaps it has some merit, but I never get very far with it. I’ve realised over time that it is the contemporary part of the story that is the weakest portion, so I’ve been thinking about re-writing just the historical part into another novella. Last weekend was the inspiration I needed to jump in with both feet and go for it.

Our keynote speaker, historian Charles van Onselen, told us how he had researched his latest non-fiction book about a larger-than-life Irish wanderer. The similarities which that character shared with my own ancestors hit me as Charles unfolded the story. A background spent in Manchester, a voyage to Africa, the small community the man created around him from contacts back in the Old Country who had also left their home in that era of Victorian colonial expansion. There was even a brief sojourn in Australia, which is where I am headed at the end of next month. The coincidences seemed too serendipitous to be ignored. This was a sign for me to get back to re-writing my historical novella.

The great thing about fiction is that, unlike historians, we can rearrange the facts to make it more interesting, especially since this isn’t a work of great historical significance. The even greater thing about historical fiction is that it doesn’t date, because it is already dated – by choice.

Sometimes when I’m writing a contemporary work, and trying to make things difficult for my characters to contact someone, it all becomes too easy with a mobile phone, e-mail, the internet or Skype. Contemporary novels have a new set of parameters every few months, as the technology of the world changes around us so fast. If you’re anything like me, novels take time to write and it’s a terrible blow after you’ve struggled through a particular plot point and worked it all out, only to have some technological boffin invent a shortcut that takes away the credibility of my plot’s tension just weeks after my novel is published!

It’s annoying to say the least, that there is a GPS on every phone – how is a person supposed to get lost in a modern book? If you haven’t seen someone you love in a while and are wondering what they currently look like, all you have to do is click on Facebook and browse their latest photos, or follow them on Twitter and look at their Instagram pics.

There’s just no mystery for us mystery writers any more…

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate technology in my real world, but not in my world of fiction where things keep getting too easy and too instant for my characters. Just thirty years ago people had to work a lot harder to find a call-box or look up something in an archive or library that might have had the added frustration of being closed when they finally got there. Let’s face it – we writers need to make our characters suffer a little, so that you – the readers – can sit on the edges of your seats, willing them to succeed. Historical fiction gives us the chance to go just a little way back in time to where it all cost the characters much more in terms of effort.

I’m not sure how my historical novella will pan out yet, but this time I will definitely turn it into something readable. Of that I am sure. I just need the time to do it, and I should have plenty of that once I reach Australia.

For those of you who follow me on Scribbling Scribes, my piece about King’s Grant Country Retreat – the beautiful venue we used for the above-mentioned seminar – will be up on that blog next Wednesday, but in the meantime you can enjoy the photos below or take a look at their website here. How could one fail to be inspired in such a beautiful place?

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12 thoughts on “Thoughts on My Own Historical Fiction

  1. “…how is a person supposed to get lost in a modern book? …There’s just no mystery for us mystery writers any more…”

    Wow! I had never thought about that before, Susan. After trying to write a Gothic mystery that takes place in the 1930’s I did learn how important it is to really research the times, etc. But since I didn’t have to deal with electronics, that never occurred to me. I hope you have great success with this piece now. Living in Utah where everyone is writing their family history, I’ll be interested to see how it turns out. May the winds be with you!

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    • Thank you, Calen. I hope your Gothic mystery turned out well – the research for that must have been fun! I enjoy historical research, but I can’t get excited about electronic research to see what technological gadgets are current (maybe because I don’t really understand most of them).

      There are so many people available worldwide to answer questions about almost anything that it’s fun to get in touch, share a few thoughts and listen to what they have to say about something they are interested in, whether it’s a hobby or a profession.

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  2. Great blog sue…you should write a novel where there is a huge technological failure on earth and people have to go back to snail mail and actually visiting each other and getting lost 😉

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    • Ha ha – thanks, Steph. Not sure that’s my kind of thing – I’d rather leave that to the dystopian sci-fi writers and get stuck into the actual historical stuff…

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  3. I just picked up A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” that, mysteriously, I never read before. It’s set in the 1980s and all the research the character does is done the old-fashioned way”: libraries and actually going places. It took me back in time. Yes, it’s way easier today but it does lack aura and awe.

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    • I loved that book! But without all that actual research that the characters do, and all their running around discovering things in the old-fashioned way, they would never have even met each other, and there would have been no book. We don’t have to go very far back in time to take advantage of the slower way of doing things either. The 80s weren’t that long ago.

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  4. So much to ponder in this post; I had to read it twice. You raise issues about writing, research, and technology I have never contemplated, but, I assure you, I will.

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    • Andy, I’m not sure because I don’t know Manchester at all. I have my great-great-grandparents’ marriage certificate which is dated 1862, and it has the husband’s address as 137 Rochdale Road and the wife’s as 57 Lord Street. He was a draper, his father was a timber merchant and his wife’s father was an agent to a fruiterer.

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      • Does it have a parish area named on it? Every time I go into Manchester City centre I travel down Rochdale Road, it is the main road that leads there from my town.

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  5. No, Andy, it doesn’t. It says: “Solemnised at the Register Office in the district of Manchester in the county of Lancaster.” I once looked up Rochdale Road and saw that it seems to be quite a main artery now, and 137 looks like it’s in an area called Middleton, but who knows if the numbers are still the same as they were 135 years ago? There is also a Rochdale Canal which was built in 1804, but despite what I originally thought, that doesn’t seem to be anywhere near it.

    When I first started researching this years ago I didn’t realise how big Manchester is now, and that it also includes several other towns that are more than just the suburbs I assumed they were. Naive of me, I know, but that was before Google maps and now it just seems kind of creepy to go looking at other people’s houses when I no longer have a valid connection with the place. Even so, it would all have been a lot smaller back then so perhaps I can be forgiven?

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