Writing Historical Fiction (6): Jason Goodwin

Recently on goodreads.com, I got an opportunity to ask few questions to Jason Goodwin —  the author of The Snake Stone,The Janissary Tree and  The Bellini Card, featuring Investigator Yashim — on writing historical fiction.

  1. Research for historical fiction can be never ending. So do you write the plot first and then add in the minor details later? Does research and writing go in parallel?
  2. …the research can be, could be, endless, so there comes a point when you have read a hundred books, hoovered the floor of the car again, washed up and fixed the leaky tap, looked at some notes, and you just have to get going. Clinging to the fragile hope that this, your story, is true in spirit, if occasionally outrageous in the details. But not, ever, anachronistic.
    A dozen minor details can be cleared up as you go, via the internet – a name, the position of a building, was he alive at this date? etc. Alan Paton, who wrote Cry, the Beloved Country, says he researches each chapter before he writes it, chapter by chapter. My chapters are tiny, usually, so that’s not the way I do it.

  3. How much liberty do you take with history to make the plot interesting? Did you have to make such a choice in any of the Yashim books?
  4. When I started writing The Janissary Tree I vowed to let mystery come before history, but of course it doesn’t come that pat. The Valide, the sultan’s mother, is drawn from Leslie Blanche’s The Wilder Shores of Love, which lays out in detail the old rumour that Mahmut II mother was a French girl from Martinique who sailed to France to finish her education. En route she was taken by Algerian corsairs, and wound up in the sultan’s harem where, by dint of her intelligence, charm and determination, she secured the top spot in the female hierarchy of the Ottoman Empire. Astonishingly, a childhood friend from the remote Carribean island became Napoleon’s Empress Josephine. Some island!
    Is Aimee’s story true, or merely a suggestive and irresistible flicker of a muslin dress across the darker pages of history? Who cares? The Valide, much older and wiser, is one of my favourite characters, and I won’t be doing without her even though, in truth, Mahmut’s mother was certainly dead by 1836, when the novel unfolds.
    Fast and loose? Maybe. But when I wrote the janissary tree I needed a third fire-tower in Istanbul, so with a certain unease I invented one and put it in a specific part of the city. Not long afterwards I happened to be leafing through the pages of an exquisite volume of engravings of Istanbul, made by a French ambassador in the late 18th century – and there was my fire tower. I’d invented it, slap-bang where it had actually stood. (I think I’ve mentioned the Library Angel on another post).

  5. Adding too much historical detail can make the book look like a history book. Adding less will not transport the reader to the 18th century. How do you come up with the right mix of spices? Do you have any guidelines?
  6. Too much, too little – who can tell? I go with the feel of it, and sometimes a reader objects that I’ve overdone the history lesson (never, I think, the other way round). I’m sorry they feel that, but I’m not deeply moved. When I began writing, when I was younger and greener, I cut my teeth on travel narratives, travel books, and the craft of it taught me a lot about using one’s eyes and ears and sense of smell in evoking an unfamiliar scene. The historical novel is travel of another sort, into the past. If a reader doesn’t want the stunning detail which evokes a period, or fixes a place – well. There are other books they can try! So, like a chef, follow your nose and do what you want.

Writing Historical Fiction (5): Research

Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction for 2010 has gone to Ann Weisgarber for The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. This book does not tell the story of murder or hidden treasure or scheming viziers, but  is about black settlers in the American West. This is not my cup of green tea, but here is a snippet from an interview with Ms. Weisgarber on how she did the research.

Next I had to learn about the issues that shaped Rachel when she was a child and a young woman. This called for history lessons about black culture. I discovered popular music, slaughterhouses in Chicago, and race riots in East St. Louis. I discovered Ida B. Wells-Barnett and admired her greatly. So did Rachel. Absorbing the culture was another step toward my seeing the world through Rachel’s eyes.
Last, I had to learn about the mindset of the time period. I read novels and diaries written before and after the turn of the 20th Century. I discovered Rachel’s story was not unique; most women in the West, including Indians, struggled to feed their children. Many women lived with determined men. Heartache and homesickness were not unique experiences, but shared by many women. Rachel was one woman among many
My background in sociology pushes me think about my characters as people of their times. I believe it’s important to include references to literature, to music, and to popular culture. Characters don’t live in vacuums but are influenced by the news of their day as well as by events in the past. Newspaper headlines impact lives.[An interview with Ann Weisgarber]

Briefly Noted: The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch

The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch, 448 pages, AmazonCrossing (December 7, 2010)
Oliver Pötzsch’s historical thriller is set in 17th century Schongau, a small town in Bavaria. This is a place where chamber pots are emptied into the streets, coffee is not served in inns like in Paris, and streets are not lighted. This not Istanbul or Amsterdam where there are layers of history, but a town which has parochial politics and social issues.
The novel starts with the murder of an orphan boy who has a mysterious tattoo. Soon other orphans are killed and this gets the attention of the hangman Jakob Kuisl who decides to investigate. An expert of not just torture and murder, Kuisl knows medicines very well too. The matter gets urgency when the town’s midwife — the one who bought Kuisl’s children into the world — is accused of witchcraft and murder and has to be interrogated. Before a pre-ordained justice is inflicted on Martha, Kuisl has to find the real culprit with his homespun skills.
As Jakob Kuisl  navigates through the clues, many strange events happen: a man known as the ‘Devil’, is spotted by a few people in suspicious circumstances; a storage facility is burned;  the building site for a leper colony is vandalized. Before the  arrival of Count Sandizell, the Elector’s secretary, the mastermind has to be found, else many women in the town could be burned as witches.
After the initial brouhaha, events move at the pace of a Roman Polanski movie, but right after the midpoint, it moves as fast as a Nicholas Cage-Jerry Bruchkeimer movie. The segments are short, the action is quick. Also as the investigation proceeds, we get an idea of the social structure of 17th century Bavaria. The Thirty Year War was over and people had returned to their small town with haunting memories and broken limbs.  Witchcraft was feared, so was the hangman. Law and order is maintained by the stentorian town clerk, ruling as a proxy for the Count. He is assisted by a council,  a few moneybags who got their position by virtue of birth. Various guilds practiced trade; trade routes and their safety were important. The book provides just enough information about the period, though a bit more on the local traditions and daily rituals would have made it richer.
Among the characters, the hangman, due to his profession is quite interesting. Unlike Jason Goodwin’s eunuch detective Yashim, who has admirable social skills, Kuisl is feared by the town. He is strong, being an ex-army man, and is able to challenge the villains physically. At the same time, he is doting father of gentle heart who hates to see a innocent burned on the stake.Though  Kuisl is the main character, there are scenes written from the POV of other characters like the town clerk and the young doctor Simon Fronwieser who makes some major discoveries. Some scenes are written from the point of view of Magdalena, the hangman’s daughter, but she plays only a minor part in the proceedings. But compared to  Kuisl, other characters are not multi-dimensional.
The book is a good read and it would have been better if it was shorter.

Writing Historical Fiction (4): Research

While writing historical fiction, you need to do two types of research: soft and hard. David Mitchell explains

The hard research involved going through archives and finding items such as the journals kept by the employees of the Dutch East India Company. It also involved seeking out history professors and persuading them to — as Mitchell describes it — “spend a couple of hours answering my rather undergraduate-level questions.”
Meanwhile, the soft research was something that continued until the day Mitchell finished his manuscript. While writing a scene in which a character was shaving, suddenly Mitchell needed to know: Did they have shaving cream in those days? Would it have been affordable to a middle-ranking clerk? Or in a scene at night: How would the room have been lit? By candle? Or by oil lantern?
“You have to know all of that,” Mitchell says. “Sometimes you can’t finish a sentence without spending half a morning going away and finding it out.”
While it was important to understand the intricacies of 18th century life, Mitchell says he also had to be careful to “hide” this knowledge so that it wouldn’t be a distraction: “Otherwise you get ridiculous sentences where the servant walks in and says, ‘Is it going to be the pig tallow candles, my Lord, or would you prefer the sperm whale oil lantern?’ ” [How David Mitchell Brings Historical Fiction To Life]

Writing Historical Fiction (2)

How accurate should historical fiction be? Can the writer deliberately omit information? Should the reader tolerate inaccuracies? In a post at the Guardian book blog James Forrester writes

The spectrum of historical fiction is therefore not as simple as “accurate = good” and “inaccurate = bad”. It depends on whether the inaccuracies are constructive lies or accidental mistakes
James Clavell’s Shogun brilliantly lied about the closeness of the English pilot Blackthorne to the future Shogun, Toranaga, to illustrate the drama of political events in Japan around 1600. In reality, the real English pilot William Adams was never as close to the real Shogun (Tokugawa Ieyasu). As with Wolf Hall, the lies added to the story, they did not detract from it.
Some lies go too far and alienate the reader. Some are too obvious. But some lying is necessary, and to get away with it, one has to be both subtle and convincing. Shakespeare is a good rule of thumb in this respect. He knowingly conflated historical characters in historical plays. He deliberately misnamed others. Sometimes he gave them attributes that were the very opposite of their real characters. And yet he made the drama of their lives meaningful for us, so that we remember who they are. No one is likely ever to accuse Shakespeare of historical accuracy, but who has written a greater work of historical fiction about the later Plantagenets?[The lying art of historical fiction]