Friday, June 3, 2011

Just Passing Through (thoughts on research)

The thing about writing fiction that's set in an historical past is that, once I start to research that past, I find the most amazingly weird ideas floating around. Naturally, I feel compelled to put those ideas into the narrative because Sharing Is Caring and I am nothing if not a caring author. I'm in that stage of research where history itself opens up before me like a vast playground and I can pick and choose from among the bizarreness that is human culture, finding actual events that demonstrate whatever themes I'm working with in my fiction. It's fun, kids! I invite you all to try it.

The other thing I enjoy, aside from the general and surprising weirdness that is the history of civilization, is how one idea will lead me to another and the narrative will grow in directions I never could have planned. As Antonia Byatt says in her swell little book On Histories and Stories, I let the reading take me where it will. Ideas form odd chains and now my narrative contains the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa, the curious writings of Hugo Munsterberg, a discussion of a priori assumptions a la Immanuel Kant, a cameo appearance by Howard Hughes and God knows what else.

I realize that this is just a sort of dilettantism and shows little respect for the works of actual historians, and that the connections I make between events in my novel may not be the actual connections these events had in real life. But them's the breaks when you work in interpretive fiction. It's art or something like it, and nothing more.


  1. I wish I had your brain for two hours. I would love to be able to think like that.

  2. I love history. The great thing about writing historical (or any) fiction, is the right to play with history. So I say, go for it.

    I've ordered Byatt's book, along with
    The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human by V. S. Ramachandran.

  3. As a kid I thought history was uncool and didn't grow to like it until I was in my 20s. Now I fear I'll never have a very firm grasp on history, which is sad. I never go very far into the past with my stories even though I wish I could. I think it's very cool when other people do. They open up new worlds for me.

  4. It's my dream to one day write more historical fiction and attempt those cool things you attempt. I'm not sure if I'll ever get there, but it's a lovely thought... :)