Saturday 22 March 2014

Forgotten History by Kate Lord Brown

Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography.
It’s always interesting hearing why authors of historical fiction are drawn to their eras. For me, the early twentieth century has always felt tantalisingly within touching distance. I grew up with my Great Aunt Rose’s tales of helping the Resistance in Occupied Holland, and hiding her husband from the Nazis in a secret room in their Middleburg hotel. I saw my grandfather sit night after night at his old mahogany dining table, surrounded by dogeared photographs of his comrades from Dunkerque, lost in his memories.

The early years of the twentieth century felt close – I wanted to understand why these experiences were still vivid, why they haunted my family. Later, when I specialised in twentieth century art, and particularly photography, at the Courtauld Institute, I realised that even history this close to our present day becomes ‘lost’. When I studied Man Ray, why were there so few mentions of Lee Miller’s remarkable war photography in the standard text books? Why did Robert Capa’s mythical figure throw such a shadow over Gerda Taro’s body of work? In writing about the Spanish Civil War in ‘The Perfume Garden’, I wanted to give Taro her correct place as his equal.

Gerda Taro © International Center of Photography
Capa by Taro © International Center of Photography

Writing historical fiction feels, at its best and most exhilarating, like detective work. A tiny clue can spark years of research. For ‘The Beauty Chorus’, it was a tiny obituary for one of the ‘Spitfire girls’ – the women who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary. The great joy of writing twentieth century histfic is that you have the privilege of talking to people who lived that history. I spoke to women now in their eighties and nineties, who told me exactly how it felt to fly those planes, and gave me details for the story that can’t be found in any text book.

Diana Barnato Walker © ATA Archive, Maidenhead Heritage Centre.
It’s that wealth of experience which is so thrilling to draw upon – and how well documented the era is. I love that it’s possible to immerse yourself in archives of unpublished papers, diaries, that you can listen to the same music, watch the same films. I’m still a ‘new’ writer, and each book is a steep learning curve, but finding these fragments of ‘forgotten’ history, and breathing life into them, conjuring a fictional story around them is like nothing else. I hope I never stop learning.

So, that’s my story – I’d love to hear why you are drawn to the era(s) you write about …

Kate's latest book


Petrea Burchard said...

You made me think about it differently. I was drawn to the King Arthur stories, but because they're myth, with new stories added all the time, I almost could have chosen my era. Instead I researched: what if such a man had lived? When would that have been and what was that era like to live in? My interest in the early 6th century was what my story led to, not what led me to my story.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I actually like writing recent eras for the same reason. The 1960s are in my lifetime and there are people I can talk to. I've done two short stories set in the 1960s, one in 1969, the second in 1964, both set in my hometown, Melbourne. The first time, I researched using newspapers of the time, including an article about a protest outside the US Consulate and behold! A workmate had been at that protest. The second time, about the Beatles visit to Melbourne, my brother-in-law said he'd been in that massive crowd outside their hotel and at their concert. Magic! You can't ask King Arthur's knights or interview Merln, eh? ;-)

Petrea Burchard said...

Absolutely true! But if you need any information about north central Illinois in 1969, you can ask me.

Ms. said...

Gerda Tarot is an echo for me from a time when I was working with a film maker on a treatment for a film about Robert Capa that included Gerda and she figured right into my line of heroines. I too am fascinated by the era. I spent time in the film archives reviewing all the nitrate film and I think it was all the background material of my childhood. The music and newsreels resonant, Nice to see her name again, and yes,Ironically, she was a wonderful photographer. She was on her way home from the war when a freak accident ended her life.

Theresa Breslin said...

I agree Kate - there is nothing quite like speaking to someone who was actually there. For one of my books I spoke to survivors of the Blitz and they had lots of stories. I was a bit taken aback at some of the things they found funny, but then I remembered that they had been children at the time. It was very revealing re how families coped after being bombed out.

Leslie Wilson said...

I must find out about her, and read your book!