Historical Fiction: Making Research Invisible – And Ignoring The Aspidistra

February 16, 2017 | By | Reply More

Memory is a cruel thing. It lingers in dark trenches, whispering, or withholding, waiting to creep into the no-man’s-land of our dreams. It knows what we long to remember, and what we hope to forget. And it knows Hearsay and Imagination will cover any gaps…

So begins my new novel, The Echo of Twilight. Set during and after the First World War, it’s the story of an intense and complex relationship between a maid and her lady; a story about abandonment and rejection, the notion of home and desire to belong, and the piecing together of identity from scraps: from memories – often inherited, and from those two good friends, Hearsay and Imagination.

Writing any novel is an exercise of imagination, but writing The Echo of Twilight was for me also an exercise of memory; because the novel is set in the places of my childhood and early life. And because I drew inspiration from some of the people who once inhabited those places, I had to meet with them again – be able to see and hear them.

As a writer of historical fiction I’m used to the time travel aspect of my job – and love it. Left alone, I can easily remove myself from here and now and go back to the early twentieth century. I suppose it’s what comes from having spent years researching a period. And yet I want that research to be almost invisible to readers. I want their transition to another time and place to be smooth and seamless, and as uncluttered by history as possible. I want their immersion to be driven not so much by the clunking wheels of time as the forward motion of the story, and for anomalies – of language or custom, or historic detail – to be so small as to be incidental.

It may seem counter-intuitive for me to say research should be invisible. But for historical fiction to be accessible and fresh, it has to feel alive and breathing. And yes, it’s hard to hold back. The temptation to show our research is ever-present, and it feels such a waste not to use it… to ignore the aspidistra in the corner, or the epergne we see so clearly on a glistening mahogany table; to turn away from the notebooks in which we’ve hoarded the minutiae. But the truth is, much of that, our research, can seem – to the reader (and to the author, when and if they reread at some stage in the future) – no different to museum exhibits: studiously placed and covered in cobwebs.

Striking a balance between historical detail and story is tricky: too much detail makes for turgid reading and only serves to slow the narrative; and too little can leave the reader feeling robbed. It’s taken me three or four books to learn this, and to almost, very nearly – hopefully – get the balance right. You see, I realise now that my own immersion is probably enough to transport and immerse my readers. I don’t need to keep reminding them. And this is – and was – truly liberating. Released from my research, free of those museum exhibits, I am able to focus on plot, on narrative and voice; on characters and their development. And I’ve realised, fiction is fiction – no matter the period or genre.

Writing The Echo of Twilight also reminded of the extraordinary power of memory as a tool in writing. Within our mind’s eye is a vast emporium of imagery. An archive of snapshots and slow-reel film, which we can – if we want – pause, fast forward or rewind. We can alter our view; zoom out, rotate and take another perspective. With concentration, we are able to magnify and more poignant details begin to emerge: scents, sounds, voices; hidden pathways and doorways to forgotten rooms.

It’s not always easy to access these internal vaults, and for a variety of reasons. Life is here and now. This day, this minute. Life is immediate and moves fast. Too fast. Remembering means slowing down, down to a stop, and then harnessing and lingering in a moment that doesn’t belong to this now. And it can be painful, uncomfortable, because sometimes, and as a form of self-protection, our subconscious mind has locked and thrown away the key. Added to this, an overlaying has occurred: burying our deepest and most distant memories beneath those more recent. But it’s all still there, and, as with everything else, the more we exercise it (our memory), the more agile it becomes.

This perhaps explains why so many elderly people, often alone and immobile and nearing the end of their lives, return to the beginning and are able to recall people, places and events with such extraordinary clarity. The Echo of Twilight is dedicated to one such person, my father. And the novel is in a way an amalgamation of memories: his and those he inherited, and my own and those I inherited. In this way, memory is or can be a collective resource.

 Long before I began writing my first published novel, The Last Summer, I filled notebooks (yes, there they are again) from conversations with my father, and from others who were able to remember life in the early part of the twentieth century. One lady, at that time nearing her one-hundredth birthday, was able to recall the time when ‘modern women’ were still chaperoned and yet to get the vote; before the honking horns of speeding motor cars had interrupted the peace and quiet of rural England.

Like treasured family heirlooms, ones we don’t need to rush back into a burning building to save, we accumulate and hoard away these random snapshots and slow-reel films. And, sometimes, we forget the details of ownership: a girlhood spent during the First World War is almost as familiar and vivid to me as a boyhood in 1930s, or even a girlhood in the 1970s.

And it is, I think, this fusion – of research, imagination and memories – that allows us to go back in time. This fusion which, in our most quiet and unanchored moments, allows the past to nudge in and time to become so fluid that there is no now and then.

How many of us, I wonder, have our most lucid thoughts in those moments between wakefulness and sleep? How many writers hear the best and most stunning dialogue at three o’clock in the morning and wish they’d remembered to put a notebook and pen by their bed? How many of us see things clearly – oh so clearly – in the small hours?

Again and again, consciously and unconsciously, we assimilate, untangle and rework our past. We go back to make sense of our now. We go back to remember. We go back to learn from our mistakes. But again and again, and above and beyond all else, we go back for one thing: love.

Judith Kinghorn’s début novel THE LAST SUMMER was first published in the UK in April 2012. Her novels are published in the USA, Canada and British Commonwealth countries and have been translated to Spanish, German, Italian and French. She lives in Hampshire, England.

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Category: On Writing

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