Getting historical novels right

Last week I was trying to finish a job application that was due in less than two hours when I got sidetracked reading my draft WW1 novel. (The application did get finished in time, don’t worry.)

I spent many hours over the summer trying to rewrite the first few chapters of this novel. In the past, like many amateur writers (and probably a few professionals), I’ve always got stuck endlessly rewriting the first chapters, trying to make them perfect. Now, thanks to nanowrimo, I at least have the rest of the first draft sitting behind it – a complete (if pretty rough) story. Did I mention the ending is also rubbish and needs to be completely rewritten?

Anyway, I was a little surprised to see it wasn’t quite as bad as I’d remembered. Much of it is actually ok! Coming to it after a break of a few months, I was much more easily able to see where edits need to be made. I also spent some time reading aloud through sections (particularly dialogue) which was very helpful and really helped me to understand the characters. I should spend more time doing that.

Interestingly I was also able to see a couple of obvious historical errors that I had previously missed.

In chapter two, one of my main characters, Esther, is shown a local newspaper clipping by her friend Hazelton. In the clipping is a photo of Hazelton standing next to her ambulance. The purpose of the scene is to contrast how Hazelton’s parents are proud of what she is doing for the war effort while Esther’s aren’t and want her to come home.

So what’s wrong with this? I suddenly remembered that newspapers of that time didn’t routinely include images – they didn’t have the technology for it. You did get reproduced images but they were in magazines, special supplements or papers like the illustrated London News – whose whole selling point was that they did include illustrations. So now I either have to edit that section to make it a text-based article in the newspaper, or specifically mention it’s from an illustrated publication.

Later in the chapter Esther uses a penknife to open a letter. I refer to her as selecting the largest blade. Then I remember that I have in my possession my great grandfather’s pen knife and it only has one blade. This was not the era of multi-function Swiss Army knives!

With this WW1 novel I do feel a responsibility to get it right, to accurately portray the experience of war and to say something meaningful about it. This is why I tend to think this novel could take me a long time to complete.

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