Turning Fact into Fiction

Paul Dowswell, author of books including Sektion 20 and Powder Monkey, explains how he gets young people interested in reading historical fiction.

"History has always fascinated me and I feel sad when kids in schools tell me its 'boooor-ing'. How can you not be interested in the fact that Nelson, like everyone else on HMS Victory, stank like a mouldy dishcloth, and was back on duty an hour after he had his arm amputated, or that the Nazis rewrote the words to Christmas carols like 'Silent Night', so they were about Hitler rather than Jesus?

We worry about the desensitising effect of violent films and video games on young people today, but 200 years ago public hangings were a fun day out for all the family.

What really fascinates me about history is that its real-life scenarios can be just as bizarre and extraordinary as anything Fantasy or Science Fiction might dream up. (Aztec sacrifices, building the Pyramids, Galileo and the Inquisition...)

When I do school visits I'm sometimes asked 'Why should we be interested in this?' and I say that people who lived in caves and painted their bodies blue to go into battle, or fought in Roman amphitheatres, sailed into the unknown with Columbus, were caught by the Black Death... they were the same as us: they wanted a roof over their heads and a nice hot dinner, they wanted their loved ones to be safe, they fancied the ploughman or milk maid at Wattleston village...

They were different too, of course. Their philosophies, religious beliefs, tolerance of cold, pain, and other physical hardships, their expectations in life ('The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate'), were very unlike our own. In 1800 the average life expectancy in England was 40 - these days that's an age when many people have only recently become parents.

That's why I write about history. I'm

a) interested in it
b) keen to awaken an interest in other people
c) hoping it'll be a warning against the more extreme aspects of human behaviour

This last one is of particular concern. My most recent three books (Auslander, The Cabinet of Curiosities, Sektion 20) have been about totalitarian philosophies and their affect on the lives of ordinary people - whether it's the Inquisition, the Nazis or the post-war communist regimes of the Eastern Bloc.

I've grown up in a world where I've been allowed to 'think my own thoughts' and I hope future generations will have that right, too. At the moment, only a fanatic would disagree that the blinkered mindsets of political and religious extremism inhibit progress and are a major contributor to human misery. I hope that will remain the common consensus in the 21st Century.

So, how do I go about writing my novels?

I start with an idea that really fascinates me, that hasn't been done before, and immerse myself in the subject. Books, most importantly, but also films, documentaries, and, if possible, visits to real-life locations.

I got reams of ideas for my Powder Monkey book from a single afternoon at Hartlepool Maritime Museum, and their Napoleonic-era frigate HMS Trincomalee. Two trips to Berlin fuelled Auslander and Sektion 20. A trip to Prague was invaluable for The Cabinet of Curiosities.

What I don't do is read fiction on the subject. I'm terrified I'll subconsciously borrow ideas or characters, or lose confidence in my own ability to do a proper job. When my book's finished Ill sometimes dare to see how other fiction writers have handled the topic. (Patrick O'Brien's Jack Aubrey books are extraordinarily accomplished, for example.)

Like any novel, the crux of your Historical Fiction story should be your characters, making them real enough for the reader to like them and care about what happens to them, but you should also make sure what they say, do, think, experience, is right for that era. Otherwise you get anachronisms that spoil the atmosphere and the world that you are trying to create in your reader's imagination.

Philippa Gregory, talking about her book The Other Boleyn Girl said, 'You go up to the point where we know and then what we don't know you make up.' Bernard Cornwell is a bit more relaxed about it. 'I'm a storyteller not a historian. In the end you sacrifice the history for the story.' (Both these quotes courtesy Radio 4's Open Book.)

Much as I admire Bernard Cornwell's ability to tell a story I'm with Philippa Gregory on this one. I like to think whatever happens to my characters could really, conceivably have happened to someone in that era and it's a matter of pride with me that my stories are 'good history'. If they're not then I'll feel I've failed in my intention. (Fact is, of course, often stranger than fiction - which gives you all sorts of latitude.)

You also have to be careful not to wear your research too obviously. There's an art in weaving in the historical detail, so it sits like wallpaper and carpets in the background, rather than banging it right in front of your reader. It's a novel after all, not an information book.

Getting the era to feel right is one of the great difficulties of Historical Fiction - but I think its worth the effort. Whether I manage to do it, is entirely my reader's opinion, of course.

Not calling your First World War soldiers Colin, Ken and Ray, ('20s and '30s names) or Wayne, Lee and Kevin ('60s), or having them say 'Cool' or 'Whatevah' is the easy bit. What's far more difficult is trying to think yourself into the mindset of your characters, and imagining how other people are going to react to them.

You have to constantly bear in mind how different people were in the era you're writing about. Back in 1800, for example, we'd think food aboard Navy ships was disgusting, but the Tars were grateful to be fed a hearty meal three times a day. (The expression 'three square meals a day' comes from the Navy the sailor's plates were square-shaped.)

In Cold War East Germany, which I've just written about in my book Sektion 20, changing the buttons on a jacket, in a bid for a little individuality, was considered a frowned-upon bourgeois indulgence. And the Wall was the 'Anti-Fascist Protection Barrier'. Escapers were 'border violators'.

It's often an ugly mindset, but trying to capture it is all part of what makes historical fiction such fun to write and read."

Paul Dowswell

22/11/2011Turning Fact into Fiction
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