There is always a great deal of controversy between the purists who research history for its own sake, and those, like myself, who try to popularise it to make it accessible to a wider audience by turning it into fiction. I must admit to taking the research far more methodically for my second novel ‘Ancasta ~ Guide me Swiftly Home’ than I did for ‘Riduna.’
For Ancasta, the research gave me the framework on which to weave the story. The fictional lives of my characters were ‘living history,’ and each key event was seen though their eyes. I included some real characters in the novel too, but the majority were my own creation. I knew my characters, but as history enfolded through my research, so did the direction of their lives change.
I will give you an example of one of my characters, Tom, Harriet’s quiet son, who from a very early age helped out in a local bicycle shop, eventually working there when he left school, unlike his more exuberant brother Jack who became an engineer in White’s Shipyard. When WW1 broke out Tom joined up and it seemed natural that he should join the 9th Cyclists Battalion. (I found this on the internet with little more information) I could have guessed that he would have become a cyclist messenger on the Western Front, in fact this is what I had written in my rough plan. Or later, when I had studied more about WW1, that he could have been involved in combat on the back of his trusty bicycle! Yes, I found that hard to believe too. I would have dreaded writing that scene, but as it happens he did none of those things. You see, I turned to the Hampshire Regiment Museum for support here and they sent me a detailed account of the 9th Regiment. The regiment did not, as it happens, go anywhere near France, but all the way to India. Since this was quite a difficult chapter for me to write I asked if the curator of the museum if he would mind checking the chapter for me, and Colonel Bullied was more than happy to do so. In fact I was overwhelmed by everyone’s willingness to help.
My point here is that my chapter was purely fiction, from the point of view of the character, but the story I told was plausible, and actually told a snippet of history that very few people knew. Surely, if readers take away from a novel a nugget of truth, they will have a greater awareness of history.
Riduna, on the other hand was a story, already in my head, a love story, through which I weaved moments in history. I tried to be as authentic as possible as to the social history, but there is so little written on Alderney of that period, certainly that has survived, that my story was in fact the framework rather than the historical period. What references I did find referring to the Channel Islands in Victorian times, I read avidly and my research certainly coloured my novel but not the other way around.
With documentaries and the internet you could argue that there is no need for this frivolous adaptation of history. Nevertheless, there is still a huge readership for historical fiction, and through my experience with my research for Ancasta, experts in their own field are more than willing to be involved and support the author to try to get their facts as accurate as possible, and even more than happy to give suggestions along the way.
An example of this was when I was discussing how my ordinary folk would hear the rumours that the boatyard in Woolston may be used by Pemberton Billing to make the new and exciting flying boats.
‘Why not get them to overhear gossip in the local pub!’ a helpful historian suggested.
Funnily enough I was even in that very pub (or at least its replacement, the original having been bombed in WW2!) the Yacht Tavern in Woolston!
I am grateful to so many people who have given me much encouragement throughout my research.
What do you think?