The relationship between fact and fiction is a complex one, and on either side feelings can run high. Biographers and historians often bemoan sensationalism in historical fiction; while historical novelists respond with suspicions of snobbery. Personally, while for many years I've enjoyed novels featuring or based on real people, until this year I'd never taken the plunge and attempted to write such a novel myself – the notion terrified me. But for a while I'd been kicking around an idea for a book which would not realistically allow me to avoid the inclusion of real people and events, and so, once my agent had given the green light for the project to go ahead, it was time for me to bite the bullet.
Just before Christmas, the manuscript was completed. The protagonist, I hasten to add, is entirely of my own imagining; but a considerable number of the book's other characters, and many of the events portrayed, are not. For me this presented a number of psychological sticking points. Like many writers, I find that a critical part of the creative process comes from 'channelling' my characters from the depths of my subconscious and allowing them to take over the plot, surprising me as much as anyone else with the inner revelations of their personalities. With real people, even deceased ones, that degree of creative control wasn't there – okay, strictly speaking one cannot libel the dead and therefore there's little to stop a historical novelist from making all manner of outlandish claims about a historical personage, but as someone who has always been profoundly uncomfortable with gossip and rumour-mongering, from the gutter press currently being exposed by the Leveson enquiry to the backstabbing of school and workplace politics, I couldn't have looked my reflection in the eye had I thrown truth to the winds so extravagantly. Also, there seemed to me to be a certain intellectual cowardice in using real people as human shields, disregarding or distorting their personalities in order to defend our own views of the issues being addressed in the book, or simply to spin a scandalous yarn.
For it is common, in novels which feature real people among their cast of characters, to find said historical personages demonised or idealised, defying the evidence left in contemporary accounts and anecdotes, or the words and writings of the person themselves. It's a curious thing, but despite the fact that people who make history rarely do so by having milk-and-water personalities, or that it was as rare in the past as it is now for anyone to be an unrelentingly unpleasant panto villain type, in fiction (and in fact some biographies) one often finds them monstered outright or having their every flaw downplayed or excused. It's easily done when addressing historical matters; I suspect that most of us at some time or another will have subconsciously reverted to thinking in clichés about former generations; who with their quaint period outfits and mysterious, po-faced portraits seem less like people than characters from old fairytales, ripe for remodelling into heroes and villains. But to my protagonist, her taken-from-history peers are the people she comes to know well, rubbing shoulders with them every day and experiencing their wit and charisma along with their eccentricities and egos. I owed it not only to the memories of these people, but to myself, my protagonist and readers of my completed book, to do what I could to portray them as such, and so I set myself a few ground rules.
First, I did copious amounts of research, both on the historical events in which my protagonist takes part and the people she encounters in the process. Photographs, newspaper reports, diaries and autobiographies all give us insights from the perspectives of those who were actually there, and while they certainly can't be taken as immaculate (journalistic reliability being what it so often is, and first-person accounts of one's behaviour being so blatantly open to bias), from a number of different accounts it's possible to build up a believable picture. Likewise personalities: for almost any historical figure you care to name, there will be descriptions left to us by those who knew them, anecdotes of their behaviour and examples of their attitudes and reactions to things from which an author can begin to develop a sense of how the person would respond in any given scenario – even if the impression you get is that the person in question was predictably unpredictable! Of course, writing fiction will at some point necessitate putting words in people's mouths – if you only have your historical figure speaking words that they're on record as having spoken, you're a stenographer, not a novelist – but I tried to ensure that any lines I gave my historical characters that weren't direct quotes, or based on things they actually said, were at least true to the spirit of the sort of things they did say.
Equally, I was wary of attributing actions too directly to people I couldn't prove were involved, especially in the case of events that to this day remain mysterious. For example, towards the end of the book I utilised an incident which took place in Glasgow in 1914, but as nobody knows, even now, precisely who was responsible for the event in question, I had my protagonist and her best friend – two characters of my own creation – carry it out; and at other points my protagonist is responsible for things for which history's attribution is hazy. I still feel a little awkward about this – if something really happened, then a real person was responsible and I feel somewhat cheeky about having my fictional character snatching credit – but if the circumstances were already vague at least I'm not responsible for the lack of clarity on that score. If I were to attribute mysterious things and events to people who did exist, that would muddy the waters far more than me having my entirely fictional characters – who obviously couldn't really have been responsible – take credit for the duration of my novel.
Finally – and coming back to the saint/sinner complex one sometimes finds in novels – I resolved to be honest in my portrayals of real people, based on my assessments of them following my research. Showing respect in one's depiction of someone who actually existed doesn't necessarily mean that you have to admire them or would want to spend a great deal of time with them; or that even if you would, you have to deny all their frustrating, baffling, maddening flaws. Alongside my protagonist, I have spent this year with women who were born politicians and yet blind to the flaws in the arguments of certain individuals; who were fiercely intelligent and just as fiercely dictatorial; whose dedication led them to acts for which we now have an all-too-familiar name. I would never wish to be in such a dull position as to like or dislike everything about any of the people I write about, real or otherwise, but I was determined to justify my positions on them – not to make every reader agree with me, for I could never hope to achieve that and nor would I want to – but by being as true to my research as I could without drifting into the realms of non-fiction.
Be true to your historical characters, and despite the enormous responsibility, you might find writing about real people and events a surprisingly enjoyable and rewarding – if often challenging – experience. Just don't expect me to do it again any time soon!
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This blog is part of the 'Looking Back Looking Forwards' series edited by Fiona Robyn between the 1st and 7th of January. What did we learn about writing and about ourselves in 2011? How will we use this knowledge in 2012? What do we hope for? Do join us and write your own post, tagged with "Looking Back Looking Forwards" (don't forget the quotation marks & capitals). Read other's posts here (or by clicking on the tag). I'll be featuring a small selection of your blogs during the week. Enjoy.