Five Things: On Writing Historical Fiction

Alison MacLeod - photo by Kate MacLeod
Category: Writing

Historical fiction has often been branded ‘escapist’.  In a review last year for The Guardian, James Wood dubbed it a ‘somewhat gimcrack genre’.  With the abundance of great literature – from Tolstoy to Mantel – that draws upon stories of the past, I’m surprised that these fairly pat descriptions go largely unchallenged, except, of course, by the writers who continue to write the stories. 

My new novel Unexploded is set in Brighton in 1940-41, and opens just after the Allied retreat from Dunkirk, one of the lowest points in the war. It’s a story that begins over 70 years ago, but it is also a story that allowed me to explore some of the questions and issues that preoccupy us in the 21st century: How do private fears become collective fears, or vice versa? How does fear gather into prejudice and xenophobia? What is the relationship between ‘terror’ and cycles of violence? What, if anything, is the force of art or literature or love in the midst of such chaos? 

A novel begins for its maker in at least several ways. Like everyone else on July 8, 2005, I was struck by the atmosphere in London on the morning after the bombings. Not long after, I was struck, too, by the thought of an invading army in 1940 marching up the beach I walk past most days; it seemed to me both shocking and surreal. The two stories somehow came together, my questions and feelings from 2005 ‘meeting’ in my imagination with the world and events of 1940. That was, perhaps, the first spark.

Writing advice:

1. Read the best. The list of great historical fiction is almost endless. But when it’s good or great, I’m not aware that I’m reading ‘historical fiction’; I’m reading a story that just happens to be set in another time. In my twenties, I was inspired by, to name just a few, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, John FowlesThe French Lieutenant’s Woman, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, D. M. Thomas’s The White Hotel, and Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot. There have been countless others since. When I’m writing, I’ll stay away from novels that might overlap with my own period. For example, during the writing of Unexploded, I avoided Sarah Waters The Night Watch and A. L. Kennedy’s Day - superb books though I know they are. But I would go back to period novels - for example, Graham Greene - and borrow some of the ordinary things of the late thirties and early forties: pink gin, glace shoes, and so on.

2. In terms of research, the internet means you don’t have to pop out to the library any more when you need to find out when beds had bedsprings or when electricity replaced gas light on the streets. But you still need to immerse yourself in your subject and a wealth of material you won’t necessarily use, or not directly. You need depth of research. You need to hear the sounds and voices of the period, to handle its things and to smell its smells. You need to distil the research into the active ingredients of your story. You’ll probably jettison three-quarters of your research – and that’s a good thing: you don’t want to shoe-horn it in.  Instead you want its vital elements or essences. That takes time. Be patient. Be ruthless. Think about point of view: would a character in 1965 see a ‘Formica table’ or would she simply see her kitchen table?  

3. You don’t want to contradict well established facts - unless that’s part of the artistic premise of your novel – but the unearthing of history, and especially of a little known history, reveals gems. Your novel and your imagination will be all the richer for it. Remember, too, that most literary forms need built-in constraints. Constraints galvanise things and create the artistic challenges any writer needs. Think of the historical record for your chosen period as your ‘constraint’. It will offer more than you know, if you spend enough time with it and don’t simply pillage from it.

4. Often the novelist’s most exciting discoveries are found in the gaps, or absences of information, in the historical record – the terra incognita where we as novelists are free to invent between the facts. That’s your territory. That’s where you can transform facts into the powerful stuff of story.  

5. This doesn’t mean that you play fast and loose. Nor is the success of a novel set in another period simply a question of accuracy vs. inaccuracy or anachronisms vs. scrupulousness. A writer’s imagination means the stakes are higher; the most fascinating stories deliver more than interesting facts strung together convincingly. The life of a good novel is always more than the sum of those facts or the author’s research. The imagination, at its most powerful, respects the facts but it also transcends them; it makes them into something more, something fully human. It sets a story in motion and, with it, a world that is – hopefully - complex, shifting, honest and illuminating. Truth needs the facts but it also comes out of a bigger place than factual report alone, and a writer must sometimes ‘lie’ (or invent) to get at the truth.

Alison MacLeod

Alison MacLeod was raised in Canada and has lived in England since 1987. She is Professor of Contemporary Fiction at The University of Chichester. She is the author of three novels: The Changeling (1996), The Wave Theory of Angels (2006) and Unexploded (2013), longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.