STARTING TO WRITE FICTION – Right now I’m writing a teaching course for the Arvon Foundation on ‘Starting to Write Fiction’. One of the workshops is on research – do you need to do it, how much do you have to do, how little can you get away with?
My last two novels were historical: The Naked Name of Love, was a story I had to tell that happened to be set in the past. My publishers, John Murray, wanted my fourth book to be in the historical literary genre too. Since they published Darwin and Byron I felt I couldn’t really say no. As David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, writes, ‘I didn’t set out to write a historical novel – you’d have to be mad.’
Every novel requires some research but the amount needed for a historical novel, unless you already have a PhD in your chosen year, is immense. You need to know what your characters ate, what they wore, how they washed (did they wash?!), how they got around, where they lived and even harder to find out but equally crucial, what they thought.
In the country of the past, people had different beliefs and customs; even their history was viewed alternately than we see it now. What was the zeitgeist of the time? Had the motor car just been invented? Was a scientific renaissance rising or dying? Then there are major historical events that overshadow your story but that your characters may be unaware of. My fourth novel, Sugar Island, is set in the US at the turn of the Civil War lending the characters’ predicament poignancy since we know what happened and they never will.
The novel that I’m working on right now is set – thank God! – in the present day and in my home city, Bristol. For the last two novels I spent 1-2 years doing the research upfront. For this one, it was a matter of weeks, and then I just got going. If I wasn’t sure of anything, I did the research then and there or left blank bits to fill in later so I could keep the momentum going and the writing fresh.
Basically you need to do some research but how much will depend on your genre and how familiar you are with the subject matter already. In the movie industry, they say that for every decade you go back in time, producers have to add another million dollars to the budget. I’d say, the further you go back in history, the more time you have to spend upfront on your research.
If you want to book on the Arvon course I’m teaching it’s called ‘Starting to Write Fiction’
7-12 October: www.arvonfoundation.org/courses