Thursday, February 24, 2011

Past personality

Do you see the past in colour, or in black and white? For me, it blazes brightly.

When I look at history, different times for me have a different feel to them; a different and distinct personality. It's not a particularly scientific thing, being able to identify how the past feels- partly it comes back to my archaeology background, which makes me think about people, places, and material culture as living and breathing, no matter whether they're no more.

Australians dancing in the street at the end of World War II

Part of it, though, comes back to the books I've read over time. Hundreds and thousands of books have been absorbed into my brain, and all of them, good, bad and indifferent, have left a little subconscious mark there. The ones with historical settings in particular tend to add puzzle pieces to the bigger picture, the depth of sense, the feeling of what it was like to live in those times.

As an author of historical fiction, being able to capture this essence of place and time is one of the most important aspects of the writing process. So how do you do it? And more importantly, how do you do it well?

My first answer to this will always be research. After that, depicting the setting is up to you.

When I started BETWEEN THE LINES, I kicked off with what is now the second book, set in London during the 1940 Blitz. Reading the bare facts is important, but it only gives one part of the impression. And bare facts are for history books- but history books are an important place to start. I devoured dozens of them.

From history books, you get dates, times, places, turning points in history- the bigger picture.

Another important source is the biographical and autobiographical stories from that time. For WWII London, it doesn't get much better than the BBC's People's War website, which is a massive collection of individual stories about living through the war. These stories start to unravel what the history books can't completely capture- the keep on keeping on spirit that bubbled on beneath Blitz London, no matter what.

From true stories and first-hand accounts, you find attitudes and memories, thoughts and feelings, hopes and dreams, fear and devastation.

Chaps in Blitz London browse the library of the bombed Harris House

I love to read historic newspapers from the time period in which my story is set. Not possible for every historical author, but my 1914 to 1941 time period gives me that benefit. So does Australia's incredible National Library of Australia digitised newspaper collection. I can sit down and read the Saturday papers that my characters read in 1912, and get a sense of the way things were before the war. I can see what clothes were in fashion in what season, and read up on recipes for tuna in aspic, or blancmange.

From newspapers, you come to know the pulse of a place, the things that mattered enough to be reported. The language of the time, unadulterated by interpretation.

A letter to an Aussie newspaper in 1897 describing local lingo- click to enlarge!

Another amazing resource I've been able to tap into is the National Archives of Australia's online war records, in which you can read the digitised record of every Australian soldier who fought in the First World War. When and where they enlisted, when, where and how they fell in battle. Who got the telegram to say they were gone- wife, mother, sister, father.

From official records, you find surprising small details about individual lives- a birthmark on the right shoulder; no family left alive to inform of an untimely death.

Western Australia's 11th Battalion in Egypt in 1915

And lastly, there's no substitute for actually going to the place you're writing about, and absorbing it a little. I've been to London twice for Blitz research, and I'm intimately acquainted with all of my Western Australian settings. It's not possible for everyone, unfortunately- that's what imagination is for, and all the above. But it's definitely worth doing if you ever get the chance!

All of these things, all these hours of digging, reading, researching, combine in my head like a patchwork of people, places, events, until the whole background blanket feels complete and real. I can settle into it and look around. I know how people get around, what they wear, what they eat, how they swear when they're frustrated. I know how they feel about the drought, the war, the Aboriginal people who live just outside town.

All these things give me the personality of my characters, but also of place. Western Australia in 1914, where BETWEEN THE LINES was set, had as unique a personality as anywhere. From a stubborn, slow-to-start colony on the coast of a harsh land, the state began to boom in the last part of the 19th century as gold was discovered further afield. The resulting boom enriched everyone, everywhere- the buildings from that time, which I can check in the Post Office directory, were big, grand, and ostentatious. Buoyed by success, people decided to seek a different kind of fortune out on the land, raising sheep and wheat- the backbone of the original colony, just further afield.

Western Australian sheep farm with ghost gums

It's these people who populate my story. Stubborn as rocks, determined to make a go of it. Simple in their desires, their opinions, their ideas. Believers in Australia, the Lucky Country, and in their connection to the King of England. Young, strong, cocky, brash and full of wry humour. These are the men who went away to war.

These are the men who never came back, or came back changed forever.

And this is the key to embodying that past personality in your historical story: the characters carry it in everything they do, think and say. Everything you've researched and learned thrives in the background through your descriptive prose, and through the plot events. But the characters, both primary and secondary, are the real spirit of the thing. They live, breathe, act and react, and through them, history has a heartbeat.


  1. Great post, Claire. You seem to really enjoy the research necessary to develop your characters - I especially liked your closing comment, "And this is the key to embodying that past personality in your historical story: the characters carry it in everything they do, think and say.... They live, breathe, act and react, and through them, history has a heartbeat." Well said. Happy crusading.

  2. Reading and pictures can never replace actually BEING there, which is why someone needs to hurry up and invent time machines or a holodeck like on Star Trek.

  3. The research that goes into writing a historical is staggering, when I stop and think about it. I agree that visiting the places we write about is important if at all possible. Some of my novels' settings I've visited, some I haven't, but hope to. Plane tickets are rather spendy just now. :)

    I have the added strangeness of seeing the past centuries, and the decades within those centuries, in certain colors, because of synesthesia. The 1700s are blue. The 1800s are brown. So are the 1900s, but a different shade. The 1920s are brown but with a heavy dash of green. The 30s brown/orange. The 40s brow,dark berry pink. The 50s are gray-blue, the 60s yellow. The 70s are a Prussian blue, the 80s and 90s their own shades of brown. We're in a black-and-white decade just now. So boring. :)

  4. I love history. I love researching and finding odd little nuggets of information. And don't get me started on the clothes! lol

    But sometimes I wonder if we can truly write a historical that is 100% historically accurate. I suspect our modern sensibilities color it slightly. Getting truly immersed in the mindset of a historical character is very difficult because our own modern ideology is always present. Not that this is a bad thing necessarily. Just something that I'm aware of when I fret over getting everything just perfect.

  5. Ah, research. I love it too. I've done tons as a historian. Reading a document in the original Latin and getting a real feel for what was important to the people of the 1200s in France and England...

    But you know the feeling. I love your wip. It's real. It's people struggling and striving and growing. Good stuff.

  6. I love reading historicals and going back in time. I applaud you for taking the time to really get to know the past.

  7. Research is both fun and important. I often get distracted by research, but it will often give me new ideas too

  8. @Pam- Thanks! I love research so much that it's my day job as well as my hobby! :) Getting lost in history is a great way to spend time.

    @Rogue- ha! Yes, yes indeed. I want that holodeck to save me the effort of driving in peak hour traffic every day, too. I vote for that.

    @Lori- Fascinating to think how synesthesia affects your viewpoint on the past. I have the *slightest* tendency to that myself, which I think is why I do see different decades and centuries as such distinct, unique entities. Oh, and we're living in a black and white decade? Sigh. That does sound kinda boring.

  9. @Kristen- ah, but do we necessarily want to? I mean, if we're authoring a history book or an archaeological paper, we want to be right on the money, but even then we're never working with absolutes. You can only interpret the information you have and hypothesise from it. When it comes to fiction, I think our optimum aim is to capture the essence of the past in such a way that people feel and believe it, and it might *not* be 100% accurate. It might always be filtered through a modern sensibility. But as long as it captures enough of the known information and authentic sensibility, you're doing pretty well. You can probably view historical novels, even the best researched of them, as a bit of "alternative" history for all those reasons :)

  10. @Zan Marie- phew, Latin completely escapes me! Sounds good for you, though :) And thanks :)

    @Kerri- thanks! I love reading historicals, too- nothing better than finding a good one that really brings it all to life.

    @Lynda- I like to think of it as an allowable distraction. If I'm going to procrastinate anyway (and I am) I may as well do it with something that's useful as well as fun.

  11. Claire -- I completely agree with you. And you said it better than I could!

    I'm thinking of certain purists who grumble over modern ideals slipping into fiction and thus find the story no good. If I'm completely honesty, I probably prefer my modern filtered stories, in as much as overlooking certain hygiene factors, to say the least. (g)

  12. Kristen- oh, I know that type (g). Would it surprise you to know that there are even more of them in the academic field in archaeology (and I'm sure in other areas dealing with the past)? Evidence, evidence, evidence- it's all good, it's all important, but without the interpretation, what do you have? Example: A ladies' mother of pearl button, some smashed crockery, and a spent bullet casing, all found in a policeman's 1880s living quarters. On their own, these items are no more than that- just items. But the interpretation? I'm sure you can imagine a story immediately that would capture the imagination and make anyone want to read more.

    And tee hee- the hygiene factors would dampen down just about any historical romance, wouldn't they? Yep, I can live without strict accuracy, for sure (g).

  13. The research is one of the things I most love about writing historical fiction. I studied French history at university, and can't get enough of it ... but I do have to be careful (as I suspect most writers of historical fiction must) that my love of research doesn't turn into this:


  14. Great post!

    The way you do research sounds like a sure-fire way to get a true feel for the era.

    I will definitely give it a try when I get back to my historical.


  15. Great Post. I stopped by to check in with a crusade group buddy. :) I love the way you do research.

  16. hi fellow crusader I love archives and have blogged about them mainly from the point of view of a family history fiend - and trying to persuade members of a living history group I run to leave their memoirs not only with their families but in the archives for researchers such as your self to use for their writing / research.

    Your mention of imersing yourself and knowing the world really well is where I am at when writing my dystopian world of the future - bringing our world into the future - yes it's not lived yet but it obeys logic and to write about it convincingly I have to immerse myself into its history (which starts now) know the world and what effects the future history will have on the people - I read a great deal about past ages to help with this - seeing the effects different major events impinge on ordinary life.

    The framework to my books is archival research - an historical romance - written in 2161 about events in 2111 - by 2 researchers trying to get the feel for the context of their story!

  17. @Rach- I can see where she's coming from with that. But at the same time, one thing is very sure for me- the times I've pushed on through writing or revising, ignoring all distractions, are the times when things have gone in the wrong direction.

    Not only does a bit of intensive research refocus me on what I'm doing, it also makes me pause and gives me the time to spot any misdirection in the plot. I'm planning on doing much *more* research in the next round of revisions for that very reason!

  18. @Misha- do! I love the stuff I've found through my research. A few weeks back I spent a day looking into whether it was socially acceptable for men and women to swim together in 1912 (answer: where I live, yes- they removed the male/ female divide at the local beach in 1907). I think my husband got a bit sick of me saying things like, "Ooh, look! I just found a sewing pattern for a 1912 swimsuit!". All very relevant, and I'm always learning something new :)

    @Ciara- thanks! :)

  19. @Alberta- wow! Your story concept sounds amazing! I love the idea of you writing an historical novel set in the future, and it sounds like your research approach is perfect- you're not looking at individual events as much as you're looking at the patterns of history and how it affects the present and future. Love it :)

  20. I'm with you, Claire. Research is about the most fun part of the novel, right after that initial rush of Shiny New Idea drafting and Just Solved a Plot Hole drafting. And you know your era is one of my favourites [g]

    I'm a stickler when it comes to accuracy, but yes, I do fudge things for the sake of hygiene. Kerchiefs and water abound, and the timing usually works out for them not being horribly filthy when they get down to mmphm...

    But I do have historical precedent, even for that - in the latter half of the book they are living in a Muslim empire after all - Turkish baths abound [g]

  21. Gosh. No wonder I don't write historical; I'm way too lazy, lol! I wrote a lawyer in my last novel and she took enough research as it was. Bravo for the patience of historical novelists!

  22. I've always loved 'picking up' a sense of a historical era through fiction. Grew up loving Georgette Heyer, Austen etc.

    And I've also spent hours poring over microfiche of WW2 copies of the Women's Weekly back in my uni days. So much to be learned from recipes during ration time. Pick the historian. :-) You can never quite bash that love of research out of us!

    Sounds like you've immersed yourself wonderfully in your era. Hope you enjoy bringing history to life through your story!

  23. @Deniz- so true, those are some of the very best parts of writing :)

    @Lucy- easy for me to forget that not everyone loves research! I have a couple of contemporary novels going, too, and there's definitely an attraction in being able to Just Write without worrying about that stuff :)

    @Adina- did you know that all those issues of Women's Weekly are now available through the national digitised newspaper archive I linked above? If you go to that link, it's number five on the first page under Find an Issue By Title. Amazing how fast things change- when I did my honours thesis, I spent six *months* making pencil notes from dozens of 19th century police station records. I accessed similar records recently for my day job, and was able to take a digital photograph of every page instead. Took me two days!