So… as you may have noticed, the progression bar of my NaNoWriMo novel stopped halfway through. Yes, I quitted NaNo pretty early, and yes, this is not like me, I didn’t like making that decision, but I think it was the right thing to do.
I started NaNo feeling unprepared. I knew I wasn’t has ready as I could possibly be. I had worked out many of the characters’ arcs, had a basic idea for the plot and I had started researching historical Weimar Republic. I had indeed started doing what it needs to be done, but deep inside I knew it wasn’t time yet.
Still, writing the first chapters I though I might actually do it. I really enjoyed writing about these new characters, and I was adding new ideas on the move. Then I noticed something: I was writing down the outline as I went along and around chapter 4 I realised it didn’t really have a direction. But what really worried me was that, when I got out of general settings and into a very specific, historical one (namely, the Berliner kabaret) I felt lost. I didn’t know how to envision the place and what was going on there, and especially how the characters would act in such a place.
So I twitted about this and I was so incredibly lucky that a German historian answered my tweet, offering help. We had a long chat that night and it was absolutely illuminating. Not only because she corrected a lot of little mistakes I had made… but because I realised how unprepared I was historically. For example, I had made one of my main characters a politician. She told me in the 1920s there were very view professional politicians and so my character was unlikely to be one. She suggested a lawyer, because my character was into social issues, and only an educated person was likely to be concerned with such things. When you do this kind of basic mistakes that will taint a character’s development and motives, you have to stop and think what it is that you’re doing wrong and why.
What’s wrong with my story is that I still don’t have the means to understand the era I’m writing about and so neither my characters and their motives. I decided to step back.
I’m sorry for the challenge, but I’m not sorry for the story, because I think this is what I needed to do. When I sort this out, it will be a much better story, I’m sure of it. Besides, I’m happy I tried, and for many reasons:
- I’ve always knew I wanted to write this story, and now I’m doing it.
Ombretta Vivaldi and her story has floated in my mind for a couple of years now. I’ve always known that sooner or later I’d have written it, but kept pushing it forward, never truly committing myself to it.
NaNoWriMo was the perfect occasion. I had to really start thinking about what I wanted to do with this idea and to actually put down some work and start crafting characters and plot.
- I discovered I love these characters.
I’ve been working at Ghost Trilogy for six years. I love that story’s characters. I really care about them and maybe because I’m so fond of them, I was kind of hesitant to give my love to new characters. But as soon as I started planning Bones of the Titans I fell in love with these new characters too.
It was such an unexpected and wonderful feeling.
- I discovered the story will be a mystery.
And let me telling you, this is kind of scary. I’ve thought that, although I love reading mysteries, I don’t really have the skills to write one. But that’s where the story is going and I can’t ignore it. So I think I’ll try my hand at this, let’s see where it takes me.
There will still be speculative elements to it. In many ways, Bones of the Titans is indeed Ghost Trilogy’s sister story, but on another level, it will be very different.
- Writing about Europe feels completely different.
I’ve always said that researching Ghost Trilogy is an enriching experience in itself. The 1920s echo our times so strongly that the more I learn about it, the more I understand the place and the time I’m living. This is true even when I research 1920s America.
But researching the place where I live and a history that is mine and still filters into the world I live today is a mind-blowing experience and I’m very happy I decided to go this way.
The experience with the German historian and my research about 1920s Europe have given me a lot of food for thoughts. About perspective, but also about what being a good historical novelist means.
What does ‘write what you know’ truly means
“Write what you know” is probably the most given of writerly advices and one of the most misunderstood. Not that I don’t agree, on the contrary. I do think we need to know what we’re writing about. Which is kind of the answer, isn’t it? I’d say the advice shouldn’t be ‘write what you know’ but rather ‘know what you write’.
We can write about whatever subject we feel like, I truly believe it. I also believe that we should first educate ourselves on what we’re writing about.
That’s where the misunderstanding comes in, I believe. When we start off writing, there are lots of things we need to learn about the writing business itself. I don’t want to scare anyone, but it takes years to muster the writing techniques to a level that will allow you to tell the story you want in an effective way. Of course, while we’re learning this, we have little mental energy spared to do anything else. So I suppose the ‘write what you know’ advice makes sense especially when we start off as writers. If we write what we already know, we don’t need to make the extra effort to learn a new subject while learning how to write about it.
I didn’t know how to write a novel when I started writing Ghost Trilogy, and this in spite of having written short stories most of my life and having spent seven years on a online workshop learning how best to use most writing techniques. I wasn’t a newbe, and yet I still had to learn how to write a medium that was completely new to me: novels.
Still it is also true that we can learn anything. I’ve said this before: when I first started researching Roaring Twenties America, I didn’t know a thing about it. I now know that it took me about one year of intensive research just to understand what I was even researching. The United States proved to be a foreign land more than I expected. So many aspects of American life are different from the same aspects of life here in Europe, and it took me time and research just to understand this. Luckily, I met some fantastic American friends online whose help has been invaluable with my endeavour.
Was learning to write a novel and research an era at the same time the smartest thing to do? Probably not. It was a time- and energy-consuming task. It is quite possible that had I written my first novel about a subject I already knew, that book would be published by now. I probably went that route because at the time I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I’m not sorry I did it. It could be done, I’m actually very happy I did it, but this awareness is the reason why I decided to go a different way with Bones of the Titans.
Historical novels, a foreign land
If we think about it, a historical novelist will always write about someone different, at the very least, because his characters will live in a different time, where everything, from lifestyle to value systems, to believes and behaviours and even the way of thinking, feeling and speaking, will be different from the novelist’s own experience.
To this extent, a historical novelist will always write about a foreign land and been aware of this diversity is the first most important thing about researching. Whether the setting is familiar or completely alien, whether the culture is similar or very different from their own, historical writers will always have to make an effort to look in from an outside position and above all to be aware of their position.
Taking things for granted is the biggest risk. Because we take something for granted in this place and time, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will still be as granted in another place and time. Even in the same place but in a different time, things might not be as granted.
In this regard, ‘know what you write’ (and ‘write what you know’?) means identify the differences and internalise them to a point you’ll instinctively know what your characters are likely to feel in their foreign position.
What they are likely to feel. It will always be an interpretation.The historical writer’s dilemma – Historical novels are always about a foreign land. They are always about someone different #histfic Click To Tweet
As I research 1920s Europe, I’ve discovered a different level of learning. Europe is my history and my culture. It already belongs to me in a way America never will and even if I’m going through the same process of learning, even as I pursue the same kind of information and try to build the same kind of mental image of the time, there is something profoundly different about the learning itself. My attitude isn’t “So, is that it?”, but it’s rather, “So, that’s why”.
My position is still that of an outsider, but not quite. 1920s Europe is a foreign land as far as history goes, but on a different level, it is very much me, a place I can look at from inside.
In this case, ‘write what you know’ means write what you don’t need to learn. What is already inside you, to such a deep level that sometimes you don’t even realise it.
It is about history, but also about culture, which is itself – in part – a historical matter.
Personally, I don’t think one position is better than the other. Both offer great possibilities, as long as the author is aware of where he stands.
- When you look in from the outside you have an extra step to take. You may never fully understand the point of view of the people you’re looking at, but you will have your own point of view to offer. From your outside position, you’ll have a more objective view, you’ll see things in a different perspective, and your own view will ad a new light to the subject.
- When you look from the inside, you’ll be part of the subject matter and so you’ll be able to offer insights that are sometime invisible from the outside. You’ll speak with an authentic voice that no outsider will ever gain, although your view may be narrower – because too much involved – than that of an outside onlooker.
As authors, being aware of our position with regard to the subject matter is part of the honesty we owe to our readers.
Is Story more important, or is it History?
In the days leading up to NaNoWriMo I felt I wasn’t as historically prepared as I should have. What convinced me to try anyway were a couple of friends who suggested I should write the story first and then adjust it to the setting.
In a way, that made sense, because, as in all of storytelling, also in historical fiction the story should always come first. I’ve read historical novels where the portrayal of history, sometimes extremely accurate, was so dominant that the story became nearly an accessory. The character’s personal arcs where guided by historical events so heavily, they were barely true arcs and what happened to those characters was almost irrelevant in comparison to history unfolding beside them.
But when during NaNoWriMo I came to a point where I needed to know more about the historical setting, I realised my lack of knowledge hurt the story as well. Letting the characters’ arc become the only thing I relied on, meant thwarting history (even unwittingly, because of my mere ignorance of things) in a way that might turn the story into something that had no historical characteristic. Something that may happened anywhere in history, including today.
It wasn’t just a matter of setting. Sure, I had no idea how to portray a Berliner kabaret. I tried to rely on what I know about speakeasies, but I soon realised that wasn’t working. Although there are similarities between the two experiences, there are also very important differences and I could not ignore it.
Still, I could have pretended to be in a speakeasy, write the scene, then during revision – and after more research – change the setting to a more accurate Berliner one. I actually tried to do that as well.
It didn’t work.
If it could have worked for the setting, it certainly didn’t work for the characters. At least two of the characters that my protagonists meet in the kabaret will be central to the plot. This means that their motives will influence the movements of the plot itself. The reasons why characters do what they do and why they want what they want depend on their personality, this is true, but it also depends on the environment where they live and act. Besides, the environment where they live and act depends in part on the characters’ reasons and desires. This is true for any genre, but in historical fiction it means the author must be aware why a certain kind of environment existed, what kind of people frequented it, and especially why.
The historical environment will influence character building, which in turn will influence the story. If you get a character wrong, you may botch the entire plot in a way that won’t work overall, to a point that you might be forced to rethink the entire story.
This is why I decided to stop. Not knowing the historical environment means the impossibility to create characters that will work in a credible storyline.
To me, Story and History are twin elements in a historical novel. They go hand-in-hand, they influence each other, but also enrich each other. If you only have a Story that might work in any setting, you might have not use the historical potentialities at their fullest. And if you don’t know your History well enough, you might be missing on fantastic plot ideas that will greatly enhance your Story.
The more you know, the less you know
When is it, then, that you know enough to be ready to write?
The Dunning-Kruger Effect theorises says that the less you know about a subject matter, the less you’re aware of how little you know. When you learn about any subject matter, every little detail you learn will open up tens of other unforeseen possibilities of learning, things you didn’t even know you don’t know.
As I like to put it, the more you know, the less you know.
This is the reason why many historical novelists suggest not to get caught up into the research mechanics. You’re bound to go from one fact to the other, realising you need to learn more, down a rabbit hole that might indeed prevent you from actually write the story. I suppose this is why my friends suggested me to write the story first.
So the critical question is: when is it that you know enough of an historical setting to be able to create a credible plot?
I’m afraid only experience may answer this, because there will be a different answer for any different author.
My own experience tells me that if I can’t place a character in an environment and know why that character is there, I don’t know enough to write that story.
As a writers doing research at the beginning of the XXI century, I consider myself very lucky. I have access to a lot more info than I myself could reach only a few years ago.
Internet is any researcher’s best friend… or is it?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the net. It allows you access to documents (when they are digitalised) you’d never be able to consult in person and it gives you the possibility to acquire information (for example by buying books online) you’d probably be unable to get any other way. But it does have a few very important shortcomings, in my opinion, which is the reason why I personally think no research is truly complete when only conducted online:
- Information tend to be either too superficial or too specific. This is why I normally use the net to get a general idea that then I’ll research more deeply on books, or to find specific articles after I’ve learn about a subjects in books.
I never assume the information I get from online articles is enough to build my knowledge of a matter. On the other hand, I’ve found such specific articles online just because the net allows me to search for very specific terms, in a way book descriptions don’t allow (yet).
- You will find online only what you’re looking for. This means that to find something useful about any subject online, you already need to know that subject well enough to make a meaningful search. If you don’t, you might query about inaccurate matters that the net will nonetheless confirm (because you can really find everything and the contrary of everything online), leaving you none the wiser that you are assuming something which is not accurate.
- Sometimes is not easy to tell the poorly researched article from the thoroughly researched one. This goes hand-in-hand with what I’ve pointed out above. If you don’t know a subject well enough already, you might not have the means to tell a thoroughly researched material from a superficial one and so you may learn inaccurate things without knowing it.
In a general sense, books are more reliable teachers. This doesn’t mean there aren’t poorly researched books (I have stumbled upon my share of them), but it’s generally more easy to tell whether a book is accurate or not because a book will have a more ample breath of interest. You might not realised that an article of 3000 words isn’t really accurate about how flappers dressed, but if you read an entire book about it you’ll have a considerably higher possibility to judge the author’s material, depth of knowledge, way to connect information, general understanding of the subject.
This global treatment of subjects that is common in books is what I love the most about them. If you do a search online on how flappers bobbed their hair, you’ll find a host of short articles about it. You’ll find photos, video and lists of links, but they will all just answer your query: how did flappers bob they hair?
If you buy a book because you want to learn how flappers bobbed their hair, that book is very unlikely to be just about that. It may be a book about 1920s fashion. It may be a book about the flapper movement. It may be a book about youth in the 1920s. It might even be a book about everyday life in the 1920s. This means, together with what you are specifically looking for, you’ll learn a lot of other related things and that’s exactly what builds your understanding of the subject in a larger way, a way that will then allow you to judge the accuracy of other material you’ll come across.
Books will give the historical writer an overall feeling for the era, not only a particular info they might be looking for. If cultivated, this will give the writer a general, instinctive feeling for the era that will allow them to judge by themselves whether something is likely for that era even when they don’t actually know the answer, which in my opinion is the most valuable kind of knowledge.
When you can guess whether something is likely to have been in the era you’re writing about… that – in my opinion – is when you’re ready to plot an historical novel, because even if you get the answer wrong, it won’t be so utterly wrong that it will disrupt your entire story.
A fried of mine theorised this in terms of numbers. She has devised a list of 50 kinds of books you need to read before even thinking to write about a historical era.
Handy, isn’t it?
So, are you a writer or a reader of historical fiction? How do you feel about Story and History? What do you appreciate the most, History or the Story? Do you even make a distinction?