9 September 2018

Reading and Writing Historicals - Faction

I’ve recently read two ‘faction’ works, and I enjoyed both.  The first was a novella, All The Freshness Of The Morning by David Black, the second full-length, The Secret Life Of The Elephant Man, by Milford Grove.

All The Freshness Of The Morning is a dramatisation of the time spent in the Pacific during WW2 of a young Lieutenant Jack Kennedy – later known to history as the United States President John F Kennedy. It is written in an accessible, chatty style, conveyed by a fictitious narrator years later remembering his time aboard the same PT boat.

In contrast, The Secret Life Of The Elephant Man takes the progressively deforming Joseph Merrick from his birth in Leicester to his death in the London Hospital in 1890. Although Merrick is the focus, and the story is conveyed from his viewpoint and that of his contemporaries, the book explores Victorian attitudes to the vulnerable, therefore deftly mirroring attitudes prevalent today.

‘Faction’ is the art of fictionalising recorded facts about real people, usually now dead, to give an insight into their life and times, written in such a way as to challenge the reader to discern the fact from the fiction. This is why it’s a genre I’ve shied away from. No matter the amount of research undertaken, no writer is ever going to get the detail correct. As if to underline this, both works mentioned above state that they are a work of fiction based on historical fact. They have, however, made me muse on the way I do write history.

For Hostage of the Heart the big picture, the events of the latter part of 1066, were researched, as was the life of ordinary people – the primary pull of history for me – yet no character existed in history. Does this make it less of a story, less of a truth?

For Beneath The Shining Mountains I also concentrated on the life of the Apsaroke people of the American northern plains. Its pre-European expansion backdrop I knew a great deal about as for many years I’d been a re-enactor giving talks to schools and community groups. Did these people live and breathe? Yes, but not under the names or settings depicted.

Each novel in the supernatural Torc of Moonlight trilogy has a different historical thread which resonates with the main contemporary timeline. Binding the two are the real-life settings which were researched down to the colour of the paint on a door.

In all, anachronisms were scrubbed spotless, yet in each the depth of history portrayed varied. Do I still believe I made a decent fist of writing the history? Yes. So why am I now musing on the different forms of conveying it?

This year I discovered information about my grandmother’s life at the close of WW1, a piece of jigsaw that has unexpectedly connected family hearsay. I want to portray her story in fiction, yet I have little more than a few black and white photographs of her in later years and a couple of bald census pages. I could certainly conjure a historical novel, though it would deviate from her day-to-day trials. Could I write faction? I’m not sure I have enough to make a choice. Maybe when I start researching the period and the places, she’ll tell me.

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