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Researching Historical Novels

August 1st, 2014

Front cover finalI often think that writing a novel is like the tip of an iceberg. What actually emerges is a small percentage of the unseen effort beneath.

Your characters have to have a thought-out backstory, even if you don’t include it all. They usually have a before and an after, a life outside the novel. Similarly, the characters are the product of their environment. It would be difficult to write a story without imagining the landscape, culture and society of the setting where the action takes place.

Recreating the spirit of the age

The iceberg simile applies to historical novels above all. To conjure up the spirit of the age, the author needs to know its history. Historical novelists such as Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel have written very credible novels set in the medieval and Tudor periods in England. They had to immerse themselves in the past.

But very little of the history itself should go into the novel. It is the characters and what happens to them that counts, otherwise you might as well write a history textbook. Striking a balance is important but hard.

Delving into the past

I spent a lot of time researching my historical novel. The House at Zaronza is set in early 20th-century Corsica and at the Western Front in World War I. Historians have written a huge amount about France and about World War I. However, Corsica has attracted little attention by comparison. To write convincingly about it during that period, I spent hours scouring the internet and reading the books I could find about it.

My main character becomes a nurse during World War I. Countless books exist about “the war to end wars” but few of them tell what it was like to be a French nurse at the Front. Luckily, I found a nurse’s memoir (in French) that someone had rescued by chance from oblivion. I gleaned a huge amount of information from it about nurses’ training; the injuries and illnesses they had to treat; the conditions they worked in; and the organisation of military hospitals.

Being selective

The temptation to include all of this information was almost overwhelming. But I had to school myself to include only what was relevant to my character and her story. So I reduced the reams of notes I took to a few sentences here and there as background.

If I hadn’t done this research, some of my educated guesses would no doubt have been wrong. So you can’t dispense with it. Just use enough of it to make the setting realistic and bring it alive for your readers.

Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer and author based in France. A former Writers Bureau student and tutor, she runs a copywriting business and writes for magazines and websites about French life and writing. Her short stories have been placed and shortlisted in creative writing competitions. The House at Zaronza is her debut novel. http://vanessacouchmanwriter.wordpress.com


Links to Amazon

http://tinyurl.com/UK-Zaronza [co.uk]

http://tinyurl.com/US-Zaronza  [.com]


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