Tuesday 5 July 2011
Hitching a Lift to the Past: N M Browne
The past is another country so they say and getting there can be problematic.
You can try the usual routes, letters, contemporary reports, memoirs, even novels written at your destination but the further back you go the rarer they become and the more controversial their meaning. Right back in first century Britain, my destination of choice, there is little written material of any kind. The twenty first century fiction writer is left pacing up and down, checking their watch at the researcher’s bus stop and hitching a ride on anything that’s going their way.
And who is going our way? Well, archaeologists mainly and that useful and much maligned breed, the experts on the arcane and ever so slightly bonkers historical reenactors.
And here I must declare my interest, I have on occasion removed my shoes to play the part of a Celtic first century slave and, in borrowed finery, strutted my stuff as a fourth century Roman matron. But I have merely dabbled. There are a hardcore of enthusiasts in this country who have researched the character they play, who have painstakingly recreated their kit, backstory, lifestyle, who’ve walked the slightly blistered walk of the Roman centurion, talked some of the talk ( though usually not in Latin) and even eaten something like their food and hauled the weight of their packs. Such paragons can usually substantiate their assumptions by reference to the archaeological record. As a researcher what’s not to like?
I like my historical fiction to feel real. I hate being told things. I especially hate being made to endure the fruits of a writer’s extensive research. As a reader I want to read a novel set in another time and place, I want to care about the story and I don’t want a history lesson. I want to discover the past world of a historical novel as naturally and as easily as I might the contemporary milieu of literary fiction.
As a writer I know just what a difficult trick that is to pull off when every sentence is a challenge. Morcant, my hero needs a drink. What kind of cup would my hero drink from, would he have a cup or a canteen and what is he drinking? What is in his kit bag? What’s it made of and how would he carry it? This information, the work of a moment to read on the page, can take long hours to discover. Such detail has to be gleaned from a variety of sources and even then there is the need for inspired guess work for testing out theories and for making it up on the balance of probability. Good re enactors can do a lot of that work for you. In finding that lost other country they can help to put you on the right road.