Monday, 22 March 2010
Histrionics: N M Browne
I’ve always liked history - reading historical novels, studying it ( in moderation) and now writing it ( in slightly modified form.)I’m not a real historian - not remotely - and even when I studied it, I liked the ‘what if’ questions much more than the facts. I’m not that keen on facts to be honest. They are generally inconvenient and gritty; lumps in the smooth cake mix of my imaginary confections. Fortunately I write historical fantasy or sometimes alternate history, (depending on who is writing my book blurb) so you would think I could discard them at will. I can’t. Unfortunately, it’s the grittiness of fact that keeps my fiction grounded and authentic and I am just as bound to the damn things as if I were writing real history.
This might be mad. I mean if a story is going to feature were wolves or magic perhaps angsting about the exact type of helmet a soldier might wear is a little neurotic. But I do angst about that. I am currently battling a major panic that my current story, set in AD 50, has my main character ( a seeress) too ignorant of battles down south to be believable. (She’s a seeress, Nicky, she can see the future she’s never going to be ‘believable’.) I am also worried that her companions would be wearing lorica segmentata rather than, the altogether more convenient, mail shirts. I pore over maps to try to work out how far my heroes could realistically cover in a day and track down details of the kind of provisions you might be expected to find in a first century Roman’s pack in mid winter. OK one of the Romans then turns into a wolf, but at least he eats the right kind of food.
I have of course rationalised this absurd incongruity - an obsession with this small stuff and a tendency to rewrite the really big stuff - the laws of physics for example: I believe that when I am asking readers to suspend disbelief and accept the impossible, it helps to go the extra ( Roman) mile to establish credibility, to build a story world that is grounded in verifiable truths. I also believe that I cannot write any other way. My perfectionist streak, which is otherwise indiscernible to the naked eye, will not allow me to just make everything up.
I am occasionally urged to write stories set in other times and places and I wonder if the people doing the urging appreciate how much time is involved in researching a book. I don’t particularly like research, I don’t get lost in it, I do it with a clear purpose in mind and only cope with it at all by choosing periods about which little concrete is known so that even being picky about the facts leaves me vast amounts of interpretive wriggle room. I don’t think I could write a story set in well documented periods because I would be paralysed by the vastness of what I don’t know.
I have tremendous admiration for people who write real historical novels, who take me to another place that is as tangibly foreign and bizarre as the past would have been.The past is not like the present without lycra and with poorer hygiene, it should feel like another planet not just another country.
For me the research is worth while when one small discovery brings that strangeness home, because fact is stranger than even fantasy fiction and nothing I can write can ever do justice to real history. I love it that the Romans had a tradition of were-wolf stories and that the condition of my poor benighted character was understood. In honour of that delightful fact my new book is called ‘Versipellum’, skin changer, or at least it will be when I finish writing it.