Writing historical fiction, the point is not to make things up, but to believe the world you are creating, writes Ian Weir
A dramatist by trade, I came to novel writing after a career in the television trenches. Down there, amid the muffled boom of stakeholders’ shells, a writer’s responsibility to the factual record is pretty clear. If you’ve signed on to write a script based on true events, then you honour the principle of AMSU: Avoid Making Shit Up. Granted, this involves sidling round the subjective nature of truth, which in TV-land can be defined as “the version of the story optioned by the producers and sold to the network.” But the principle remains sacred, right up to the point at which the script gets boring. Then, of course, you make shit up.
Now that I’m a novelist, with a novelist’s freedom to invent whatever I want, I’m indulging my love for Gothic tropes and ranging out into the wilder frontiers of the possible. But I’m more reluctant than ever to MSU.
Some caveats apply. I don’t write the kind of historical fiction that limns the lines of well-documented lives. Historical figures make cameo appearances in my books, but the central characters are fictional, which buys a degree of leeway. Besides, a novel like Will Starling, about Regency science, is really about you and me, here and now. It’s all about positioning the mirror, and that involves a constant process of winnowing, selecting, and angling historical facts.
But the facts are genuine. None of what happens in the book is made up. Principle factors into this, of course. Historical fiction implies a promise to the reader: this is a glimpse of what it was actually like. But mainly, writing is a species of dramatic performance – at least, for me. And like an actor, I have to believe what I’m saying.
My first full-length play included a character whose primary dramatic function was to cause the hero to fall in love with her. Two days into rehearsal, the actress stopped dead, looked round in frustration, and asked: “Where the hell have I been?” Ever helpful, I pointed to the door she had come through. This, of course, is not what she meant. She needed to know what life she had come through, where she lived and whether she liked it, what assumptions she carried with her, and why. The vital planks that, when painstakingly nailed together, might give her some support to stand on.
Both my novels (Will Starling and its predecessor, Daniel O’Thunder) are set in London, England, a city I trudged through endlessly as a graduate student years ago. It’s a city in which nooks and crannies of distant centuries still exist, hunched within the modern metropolis. So when my narrator steps out the door on a raw April morning in 1816, I have a sense of what he’s stepping into: the bite of the London wind, and the geography of those winding streets. But that’s just the barest beginning. I need to know where he’s coming from, and why, where he’s going, what’s done by the people he’ll meet there, and how it’s done, and what it does to the people who do it. Without these details the process breaks down and there I am: an actor in a rehearsal hall, looking round for the bungler who wrote this.
Of the various shocks that await the screenwriter who crosses over into novels – and the list is substantial – the most unsettling is the realization that this is a solo expedition. In the mountains of TV, you take for granted the extent to which your climb depends on a team of Sherpas. Don’t ask me what a character is wearing, or what’s in his pocket: that’s a question for wardrobe or props. And if you’re accustomed to the corner-office coddling that comes with being a writer-producer, you don’t just say, “Go talk to the art department.” You get to roll your eyes as you say it.
Being a novelist is entirely different. Here you are, alone, halfway up Mount Everest, desperate for practical information about thermal underwear.
So I research: for Will Starling, two years’ worth before hazarding the page. Three trips to London, and multiple shelves of books. Books written about the period, and books written in the period: novels and plays and diaries and broadsheets. Partly, this process involves getting a feel for language and rhythm; I can’t settle into a character until I can hear him talking, and until he’s talking I have no idea what he’s thinking. But it’s also about scavenging shards of fact. The schedule of surgeries at Guy’s Hospital and the occupation of Half-Hanged Smith, the going rates for exhumed cadavers and the bill of fare at the Coal Hole Tavern. All the thousands of shiny nails that a writer can use to hammer his planks together. By the time I’d finished, I had a platform that would hold the weight of a novel. Or I believed it would, and this is all that actually matters – just ask Wile E. Coyote.
In my first novel, there is a confident set piece concerning an escape from Newgate Gaol that is – I discovered years after the fact – completely bogus, since it’s based on a woeful misunderstanding of the prison’s layout. But this time I nailed it. This time, every shard of detail is genuine, and my platform could withstand a typhoon.
No, you don’t just make shit up. But as Wile E. Coyote knows, it’s best not to look down, either.
Ian Weir was shortlisted for the Amazon.ca First Novel Award for his debut, Daniel O’Thunder. His second novel, Will Starling, is published by Goose Lane Editions.
This feature appeared in the September 2014 print edition