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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
…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.
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).
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.