This is a blog I wrote for the Brockton Writers Series. Thanks for the inspiration!
Making history come alive means writing novels that create a rich and convincing fictional world which gives the reader the experience of the past. Here is how I go about it:
Before I write:
- I find a period of history and historical characters that resonate with me.
Since I grew up in Poland, I’m drawn to the stories from behind the Iron Curtain, which—I believe—has long kept Eastern Europe cut off from the rest of the world. Because I’m an immigrant, I respond to characters who changed cultures and countries, who had to re-write themselves and find new meaning in their transformations.
- I do general research.
At the beginning I read anything I can find on the historical characters that intrigue me: memoirs, letters, biographies, scholarly books and articles. If possible, I visit archives and talk to historians who specialize in the period.
My goal for general research is to gain a solid understanding of the historical period I intend to write about: its concerns, dilemmas, preoccupations, and joys.
- I make comprehensive lists of details.
I take detailed notes on anything that strikes me in my research: descriptions of clothes and daily chores; gossip, beliefs, fears; popular expressions, topics of conversations, favourite pastimes, food, drinks, and popular books.
I divide these notes into categories for easy reference and access. Among many excellent software packages designed for such tasks Scrivener is my favourite.
- I travel.
Visiting the locations where important scenes of my novel take place allows me to put myself there, describe what I see, and develop a feel for the lay of the land. Later when I am at my desk, writing, I find it much easier to visualize my characters in these locations and, consequently, make the scenes I write full-bodied and alive.
- I step away from my research.
Researching is great fun, so it can easily become a never ending quest, especially attractive on a bad writing day. After about three months of research I take a research break and focus on constructing my fictional world. By that time, all I have read and noted has become like the bottom of an iceberg, submerged, invisible, but there to support me.
As I write:
- I strive not to give history lessons.
There is a fine line between providing the reader with essential information and sounding like a lecturer. I mention historical facts only if and when they impact my characters’ lives. I let my characters interpret these facts, without the benefit of hindsight and from their limited—and often not entirely reliable—point of view.
- I don’t alter solid facts.
Writers differ considerably on their approach to historical accuracy. I don’t alter undisputed historical facts, but I make use of gaps and historical controversies if I need them for my version of the story. And since I often present historical events from my character’s point of view, I explore historical gossip and speculation, as well as the limits of private and collective memory.
- I take as much content as I can from the writings of the past.
The writings of the past provide me with the material from which I build my fictional world, but I do not stay away from the modern interpretation of what I find.
In Empress of the Night, for instance, I used eighteenth century descriptions of Catherine the Great’s stroke but interpreted them according to the current medical knowledge. This modern interpretation of stroke victims’ perceptions became the backbone of my novel.
The writings of the past also provide me with ideas for my character’s conversations, concerns, and dreams, and often suggest specific incidents that befall them.
- I recognize my own limits.
With time, values, attitudes, sensibilities change. I realize that I can never escape my own times, and neither can my readers.
I embrace these limits. I look for voices silenced or marginalized. I claim them for my characters, explore them, infuse them with new, modern meaning.
In the end the only novel I can write is a contemporary novel about the past.
- I remind myself of what drew me to the historical character in the first place.
All the historical research is but an aid in creating vivid and memorable characters whose dilemmas, fears, dreams, and joys matter to me, the author, for compelling reasons.
As I began writing my novels of Catherine the Great, I kept in mind the fact that the history of her Russia affected the history of Eastern Europe, and—by extension—the history of my own family. I reminded myself that even though Catherine the Great was one of the most powerful women in history, she had to face and overcome misogyny, and that she was an immigrant to Russia who had to rewrite herself and develop a new identity, a process I am intimately familiar with.
A list of my favourite internet research sites:
#twitterstorians is a great # to follow for information and tips on historical research as well as blogs by researches and students of history.