I remember returning to Hong Kong in 2000, having spent eighteen months there in the early '80s, and then having written a novel set in the Hong Kong of the 1880s (The Mountain of Immoderate Desires). There are still some old buildings left in HK, but not many (one Hong Kong friend appalled me when he came to Henley and demanded: 'Why don't you knock all this old stuff down and build high-rises? You could just keep one or two old houses, to show people how it used to be). But I had, by then, spent so much time peering at numberless old photographs of the territory, that when I looked at the new city, I could see the old scenes like a veil over the new buildings.
|Stage One of the process|
|Stage Three; more or less back in old Taipingshan|
|Chinese junk, Hong Kong harbour 1982|
I fear, however, that I am still looking in the rearview mirror; at present, for example, I have a tendency to mutter that we need Charles James Fox. I read the paper, more or less, every morning, only to let modern politics fall out of my mind and be more concerned with the state of Parliament in the late eighteenth century, and the state of play in the battle to win control from the meddling George the Third. His descendant, Charles Windsor, bids fair to rival him in going beyond his constitutional role, it has to be said - and there you are, I'm off… But tell me, have you heard whether the King is truly going mad again?
You have to button up your mouth for fear you become a bore - unless talking to other Historical Novelists, who understand.
|Charles James Fox by Samuel Cotes (Parliament via Wikimedia Commons)|
If you have adopted some of the language of your chosen period - something I normally find myself doing, except when I wrote about Nazi Germany, and had to translate all the dialogue out of German into English, you find yourself using its expressions, especially when writing. To be sure, I normally managed NOT to start talking German to incomprehending Brits, but it is much harder if your characters do speak the language you normally speak. Unless you are Hilary Mantel, whose characters all talk modern English. When she asked me for help with German for Wolf Hall, I was reaching out to my shelves for my 15th-century German books, and was a little disappointed to hear that she wanted modern German. It was easier, however! Hilary, however, does get kept awake, as she told the Guardian, by Tudor courtiers gossiping.
Finally: if the screening process I have mentioned above does fail in order to allow one to notice anything happening in the present day, specific to the present day (as opposed to eternal things like sex, grandchildren, human relations, gardening and making bread*), you are riddled with frustration because you CAN'T PUT THEM IN YOUR NOVEL!
So what does being a historical novelist/novel reader do to you???
*Though on that topic, you have the perennial problem and eternal/internal talking point: Is the Past Another Country? Did kneading dough feel different a hundred years ago? It has to be said that baking must have been a whole lot different without a thermostatted oven!