Sunday, 29 November 2015

Filling the cracks with gold

Our November guest is Anne Rooney, appropriately enough since this has been Non-fiction month - did you know? - and Anne has written around 200 books, many of them non-fiction for both adults and younger readers. 

In fact "guest" is a bit misleading, since Anne is here all the time. She is "tech support" for The History Girls and if you have ever seen a post that looked a bit peculiar and checked back later to find it perfect, it's because Anne has been working behind the scenes. We are very glad to have her as a "back room History Girl" and so we welcome her as perhaps a house guest for November.

Photo credit: Luki Sumner-Rooney
Anne began her working life as a medievalist but turned to writing after deciding the academic life was not really for her. She has been writing children’s books for about 15 years, though still makes occasional forays into adult writing, mostly in the area of the history and philosophy of science.  Much of her non-fiction has historical content. She has written fiction with a contemporary setting but featuring historical figures who have endured beyond their sell-by date (did you know that Louis Pasteur, Joseph Guillotin and Elvis Presley were all vampires?) and has specifically historical fiction in the pipeline (Forever, forthcoming 2016).

Anne is a contributor to the History Girls' anthology Daughters of Time. She is Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge

Welcome to Anne, polymath and workaholic.

The cracks are fertile!
Like spies, terrorists and moss, writers of historical fiction occupy the cracks.

It's easy to assume that as we make things up fiction-writers do less rigorous research than writers of historical fact. Why would we spend as much effort as a historian finding out what actually happened and what life was really like, if we're going to write about what didn't happen and what we imagine life was like?

The best historical fiction wears its learning lightly, so it's not surprising readers imagine there's little research. The historian will say, 'look, this is what a Victorian baby-bottle looked like, this is how it was used, this is what the mother put into the bottle to make the baby sleep.' The research is all there, in the foreground. The historical novelist will mention the baby-farmer removing the twist of rag from the neck of the bottle and pouring in a glug of the evil Godfrey's cordial (opium and treacle), but as a reader you won't be thinking, 'ah, that's how a baby was fed when there was no lactating mother.' You'll be waiting to see what happens next. You don't notice the research - it slips down as easily as Godfrey's cordial.

Indeed, much of the research that goes into historical fiction never reaches the page. It informs the writing, but a lot of it is preventing mistakes rather than making a positive appearance. The reader's willing suspension of disbelief will be curtailed pretty quickly if a 13th-century feast includes potatoes, or a lady from the 1700s wears a mauve dress. Research keeps potatoes out of novels set in the Middle Ages. Or sometimes half a day's research will contribute a single word to the book - perhaps one dish in a meal, the colour of a flag or the price paid for a suitable drink.

I write some historical fiction and a lot of historical fact. The research for both starts in the same way, with a broad sweep, picking up all the main events, trends, issues and characters. Then it homes in on the most important areas. Many of the sources are the same: academic and popular history books and articles; museums; archives; talking to experts.

Booth's map, colour coded to show levels of
prosperity and poverty in Victorian London
I’ve been working (slowly) on a story set in Victorian London. My research has been about everyday life, particularly the living conditions of the London poor. The most important primary sources have been Charles Booth’s poor map and Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851). Beyond the textual sources, I've been to the Museum of Childhood to look at baby-bottles, the Museum of London to see contemporary photographs of street life, and the London Aquarium to look at objects found in the mud of the Thames.

Some sources I probably wouldn't have used for historical fact: the novels of Dickens; paintings, newspaper sketches and cartoons; the dolls' houses in the Museum of London which are exact replicas of real homes; films (for atmosphere); and I’ve visited the places, though they are much changed, and walked the routes my characters walk, felt the mud, and watched the tides of the Thames (thanks to History Girl Michelle Lovric for letting me stand on her balcony above the Thames for that!)

It's not just a matter of using additional sources, though. The historian and the fiction-writer look for different things. The historian looks for a coherent narrative in the chaotic remnants of the past -  threads that link events and people, one thing leading to another, explaining another, preventing another. The writer of fiction, as often as not, is looking for the gaps. The historian wants to answer questions; the novelist wants to ask questions. The historian uses the minutiae of lives lived to illuminate the bigger picture, while the writer of fiction explores what it was like living those lives against the background of the bigger picture.

Good historians know that history only comes to life when we see how it was lived. The details of lives and personalities offer the best way into imagining and engaging with the past. Social histories such as Sarah Wise's The Blackest Streets (2009) about the Old Nichol (a desperately squalid slum in Victorian London) are distilled from reports and personal narratives. They are ripe for plundering. As fiction writers, we can take a nugget of true narrative and spin a whole life-story from it. It’s like taking a spoonful of sugar and spinning it into candyfloss. The sugar tastes different when mixed with the air and the truth tastes different when expanded with imagination – the story adds texture and volume and specialness to the spoonful of truth.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), before
the nose incident
Take Tycho Brahe's moose. Tycho Brahe was the last great naked-eye astronomer and the first to contradict Aristotle's (and the Bible's) notion that the heavens are fixed and there can be no new starts. So he has his place in the history of astronomy. But he is far more interesting than that. He ruled autocratically over the island of Hven off the coast of Sweden where he had his observatory. The more famous astronomer Kepler worked as his assistant for many years. Brahe wore a prosthetic metal nose, having lost part of his real nose in a duel over a mathematical formula. He died of politeness - refusing to leave a feast to urinate, he suffered a burst bladder. And he had a pet moose, which died after drinking too much beer at a feast and falling down the stairs. None of Brahe's eccentricity has much bearing on the history of astronomy, but it is exactly the kind of gift a fiction-writer is delighted to find in the historical record.

If you were to set out to write a history of Brahe and his moose, you'd find scant material. Its existence and death are recorded in Brahe's correspondence, but only briefly. For the historian, that's frustrating; gaps in the historical record make the job harder. Historians are not allowed just to make up something to fill the gap. They must work from the evidence around the gap and try to fill it, seamlessly, by extending from the edges. If the task goes well, the evidence criss-crosses the space representing our ignorance and supports a plausible structure of conjecture. It’s like detective work. It’s challenging, inspiring and sometimes frustrating.

Fictional historical writing, on the other hand, flourishes in the gaps in history. The fiction-writer can weigh up the evidence, choose a plausible narrative and treat is as though it were the truth without excuse, apology or accommodation. It's where we don't know what happened that we can let 'what if' run free. Like parenting, fictional history has to be good enough rather than perfect. It must be consistent with the facts – or honest about where it is not consistent – but can go beyond them without having to defend its choices. In parenting, if everyone is alive and intact at bedtime, it’s a good day. In historical fiction, if the dead are still dead and no worlds were destroyed – well, it’s a pretty good start.

Writing historical fiction, we focus on creating the world as experienced by the people we are writing about. What did they eat for breakfast? What’s it like to walk through streets full of horse manure and dog poo? How do you occupy yourself when it gets dark at 4 pm but you can’t afford lights? What is your attitude towards food if you eat tasteless gruel every day? How far will you go trying to keep warm in the winter? Do you believe in ghosts? Are dogs frightening? Is a baby more a burden than a treasure? These are rarely the questions asked by factual histories. The answers come from the exercise of empathy on the stuff of research. We share the same minds and bodies as people of the past, so we can put ourselves into their shoes – or bare feet – and imagine how they experienced life. The historian benefits from empathy, but must leave the larger part of imagination at the study door.

More has been lost from the historical record than has been preserved, and the further back you go, or the deeper into any particular area, the less there is. It’s often a frustration for the historian, but a gift for the fiction-writer. The unknown is where imagination has always played - 'here be monsters'.

Perhaps one of the differences between what a historian does and what a writer of fiction does with the slabs of research and the gaps between them is best illustrated by two approaches to mending broken things. If we think of the historical record as the broken fragments of the past, the historian is aiming for this:

This is one of three Qing dynasty vases accidentally broken by a visitor falling down the stairs of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2006. After weeks of careful conservation work, the joins are invisible to the naked eye. You can see the process of reconstruction here.

The writer of historical fiction is aiming for this:

Hey Rosetta! album cover for Second Sight,
using Japanese Kintsugi bowl

The ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi aims to make something beautiful from broken objects by highlighting the breaks. The admirer is not asked to ignore the fractures but celebrate them. The cracks are often filled with resin enriched with gold. I think that’s what we are doing as we write historical fiction – filling the cracks in reality with gold.

Anne Rooney's latest non-fiction book is The Story of Maps:

Look out for the competition tomorrow to win a copy.

And thanks for visiting, Anne, and sharing your immense experience of the different uses of research.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for this delightful post, Anne! And you're quite right. Historical fiction does do things a little differently from historical fact. You do sometimes have to ask, "What if..?" when the answer is lost in the past. Mind you, there's non fiction for entertainment, mostly written for children. I would absolutely use the story of the moose and the prosthetic nose AND the cause of Tycho's death in an article or a book for children, even if I had to say, "We only know about this from a few letters, but from what we do know about Tycho, it might be true..." And my young readers would remember it with great delight and go looking for more information about him. If it turns out to be nonsense, well,they would still remember him and know other things by then.

Bridget Blair said...

What a fascinating post! A burst bladder, a drunk moose , feeding babies drugs and so much more . As well as the differences between historical fact and fiction. Thanks....I hope you have time to write some other posts!

Stroppy Author said...

Hi Sue - definitely Tycho and the moose are good children's book material and I'm sure I've used them somewhere. But they can only be a passing reference in fact, while they could get a whole book in fiction. The moose is definitely true - it's mentioned in Tycho's letters to another astronomer, Lantgrave Wilhelm. He had offered to lend him the moose (as you do, lending your mooses around Europe) but as it had died he offered to procure another moose.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Hi Stroppy! Thanks for confirming about Tycho and the moose. I must look it up now. If I did use it, I might do it as part of an article about Tycho for a children's magazine, or as a Did You Know? in a book on famous scientists, not, of course, as a book in itself. Kids just love quirky stuff.

Ruan Peat said...

I adore the image of historical fiction being the gold in the cracks! that it has value above and beyond the original thing and there is little to no pretense in the set up even if the whole body is a fabrication hung on just the barest facts.

Catherine Hokin said...

Great post - I've always described historical fiction as finding the stories in the gaps but will now pinch your analogy! Credited of course.

Elspeth Scott said...

What a fascinating post. The comparison of historical fiction with Kintsugi is sheds a new (to me) light on the process which made me think 'of course ' ! I now want one of the History Girls to write a historical novel with Tycho Brahe in it...

carol drinkwater said...

Lovely post, thank you so much. Also for the invaluable tech support Cx

Lydia Syson said...

Perfect analogy. Thank you for putting it so well. Kintsugi is a new thing to me too, but I think I'm going to embrace the idea next time I mend a plate, as well as today, while I'm writing. I'm struggling with gaps in knowledge so much more huge in what I'm writing at the moment than for any other book I've written before that I'm close to despair. I will take heart from this.