Our RNA chapter recently discussed the question of how accurate factual background needs to be when writing fiction. To what extent can we adapt the truth on the grounds that we don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story?
This set me thinking about my own approach. Given that I write principally historical fiction, the factual context of the period I’m writing about and the public figures of the time are important as well as the current issues of the day. That awareness feeds the dialogues between my characters, their political views etc. So where do I set the boundary between truth and story-telling?
I start with an idea of the period in which I’m considering placing my story and research it thoroughly. How? I check out the main events of the year/s I’m interested in, including economic, social and political issues as well as the weather, natural disasters, clothing, furniture, buildings of the time, publications etc. With luck and a following wind, something will leap out at me, an event, or a scandal and then I’m off…
I use a number of sources including the British Newspaper Archive (a subscription source, but well worth it for 18th century onwards), Hansard archives and other relevant archives, plus any books written at the time and often available at the British Library—if you live in the north like me the Reading Room at Boston Spa can now obtain most items so you don’t need to go to St Pancras. Quite a lot of older items have been scanned in and can be viewed digitally at home, but you do need to join (an easy and free process).
Then I explore the ‘what ifs’ and this is where my imagination roams wide and I adapt known events to suit my fictional story. For example, in researching the Boer War (the context for two of my novels) I looked at the actual records of volunteer civilian doctors and Red Cross nurses and found that one civilian surgeon was listed as ‘missing’ after the conflict, as was at least one of the nurses. Did they die? Probably—but supposing they didn’t? Might there be a reason they chose to ‘disappear’? So was born the theme for Miss Deacon Investigates, in which an inquisitive government inspector sets out to unravel the mystery.
I have done considerable research on the role of women spies in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. How to use such a popular time period and be different? So I created a female character who’d been a spy in both and brought her to life through the eyes of her great niece, who by chance discovered the family connection. The result was The Year I found Great Aunt Alice, a past-meets-present novel.
On a lighter note, I researched the Great Exhibition of 1851 and discovered they had toilet provision for visitors in the Crystal Palace, at one penny a go! So I created my own sanitary engineer and the baby daughter who was born in said toilets and what befell her when she grew up. No, I chose not to call it ‘The Sanitary Engineer’s Daughter’--In for a Penny sounded much more catchy.