Friday, 26 July 2013
The joys and pitfalls of writing historical fiction
I was at the Society of Authors North Summer Social yesterday and met Nina Boyd who has written From Suffragette to Fascist, the Many Lives of Mary Sophia Allen, and who is currently working on a biography of Lizzy Lind of Hageby, a Swedish feminist and campaigner for animal rights. We discussed some of the problems we face when we try to write the story of people who are not all that well documented and are no longer alive.
Uncovering the facts is hard enough. But we also need to pay attention to the details of everyday life. Finding out about both of these areas can be fascinating and can also be a great distraction. Often we’ll try to find out these details before we start writing. Occasionally questions only occur to us as we write. Sometimes the writing itself uncovers the truth.
We have to take care not to overwhelm our readers with facts. It’s tempting to try and cram in everything we know. It’s better to relax into the story and just write with the knowledge we’ve acquired rather than about it. Somehow what the reader needs comes across. It’s like this with characters we invent, too.
I’ve chosen to use a narrative-style that is more normal in fiction. I believe this makes my text more palatable to the reader. Much of what I am writing may be fiction anyway. Not only was Clara murdered but most evidence of her existence was annihilated. There is very little of her left apart from the plaque on the house in Schellberg Street and the Stolperstein in front of it.
There is a huge ethical issue here, also. We put words into these people’s mouths. We supply their voice and they cannot defend themselves. This is slightly better than them having no voice but only if we represent them accurately and sensitively. In Clara’s case I am related to her closest living relatives – her great grandson and great-great-grandchildren. I have their permission and trust.