Researching and Writing Historical Fiction

Cross-posted as “Truth in Fiction” on the Robbins Library blog.

As November, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), was drawing to a close, I had the opportunity to attend a program that I had set up at the Robbins Library: authors Margot Livesey and Adam Braver came to have a conversation about researching and writing historical fiction. Margot is the author of, most recently, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a retelling of Jane Eyre; Adam’s newest novel is Misfit, about Marilyn Monroe.

Do you research first and write after, write and research at the same time, or write first and research after? “Research feeds imagination,” said Livesey. She does some preliminary research before writing, just enough for a chapter or a draft, then researches retrospectively as needed. Both authors agreed that they could get bogged down or sidetracked, and that research could be an excellent procrastination tool.

Braver said he will look up facts he needs as he writes, and “sometimes it leads to something [else],” but he also does a large amount of preliminary research, using newspapers and interviews. Both authors said they have worked and researched in public libraries, using newspapers, microfilm and microfiche, and of course books. At home, Livesey has two computers: one that “doesn’t know the Internet exists,” and another that is online. She writes on the offline computer, and only goes to the online one if she really needs to look something up.

How do you manage to spend so much time with your novels and not get sick of them; how do you manage to persevere? “Not getting sick of it is the challenge,” Braver responded. He said he usually goes through 15 – 20 revisions per book, and would often like to quit when it’s “good enough,” but “I’m restless until I feel like it’s right.”

How do you deal with conflicting versions of history? Braver answered that conflicting versions often become the story. Like historians, novelists are looking for the truth behind the facts; the facts may be irrefutable, but the order in which they are told is what makes a story.

How much is fact and how much is fiction? What liberties do you take when you write fiction set in the past? As a reader of fiction, Livesey said, “I count on fiction to tell me the truth…be faithful in certain ways.” One might, for example, add a burn unit to a hospital that didn’t have one, but not drop bombs on a city that wasn’t bombed. (Of course, authors can address what’s true and what’s invented in an Afterword.)

“I think readers mind very much about precision,” said Livesey, estimating that about 30% of the mail she receives from readers contains corrections to her work. However, “people are forgiving…unless it’s sloppy.”

What’s the difference between writing about a period some people remember, as opposed to writing about a time no one alive remembers? Braver said that certain periods in the past are viewed “in sepia tone,” and his goal is to “strip away the nostalgia,” and make the reader feel as though, by opening the novel, they are opening a door into the past.

Braver writes about well-known historical figures – President Lincoln, Jackie Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe – but focuses on the periphery, on moments that occurred out of the public spotlight. Livesey’s characters, by contrast, are “modest,” and invented. “Small details of ordinary life,” she said, can be more important than big events.

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