History Is Something That Happens To Other People

19 May

Two quick announcements from Shannon before today’s guest blogger takes over:

I have joined Tumblr, so please join me by clicking here. Also, my headshot pictures have changed. I recently did a photo shoot with Colt Coan Photography. Check out his website by clicking here!

Today’s guest blogger is Misha Burnett, author of the Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts, science fiction/urban fantasy novels. He will also mention his co-author, Jessika O’Sullivan. Please click on their names to visit their websites.   

I have always been intimidated by historical research for fiction. One of my favorite authors is Tim Powers, who writes an unique form of historical fantasy, blending real events with fantastic elements so seamlessly that you finish his books wondering just what the hell really happened.

I would read something like The Anubis Gates (about a secret society of Egyptian magicians in early 19th Century London) or Declare (the career of Soviet spy Kim Philby explained as a cold world battle over the control of a colony of djin in the Arabian desert) and be utterly blown away—and completely convinced that I could never attempt anything like that.

Recently however, I found myself having started a historical novel. It’s kind of a funny story. An indie writer friend of mine invited me to join a Google+ group called “Legendary Author Battles”. The purpose of the group was to writers working together on short stories. One would pick the setting, the other the characters, and they would take turns adding to the story. These “battles” weren’t intended to be serious, they were simply a writing exercise.

However, a writer named Jessika O’Sullivan and I found ourselves with the beginning of a very interesting story, with characters that we cared about, and both of us decided that it really ought to be given a change to become a novel.

Fortunately Jessika is well educated and willing to shoulder the brunt of the research. However, as I was going I found myself needing to know things in order to figure out how events would unfold.

Our novel is set in East Berlin, in 1947. We have a diverse mix of characters, English, German, Russian, ranging in age from their early 20’s to their mid 50’s. Suddenly I have to know things like what was going on in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1917 or how extensive was the firebombing of Dresden, Germany in February of 1945.

Thank God for Wikipedia. Not only do they have pages on everything, they have links to actual source materials and archive pictures. Did you know that you can get lists of articles that appeared in The Lancet magazine going back to the 19th Century?

Translating the cold data into a character’s experiences, however, I have begun to realize that looking up facts is only the first half. There is a phrase used by military writers; “Ground Truth”. They use it to refer to the difference between knowing something because your intelligence agencies tell you so, and getting physically into an area and seeing it with your own eyes.

Obviously, I cannot physically walk the streets of East Berlin in 1947. I wouldn’t even be able to swing the airfare to visit Berlin today. I’m a writer, though, I travel via my imagination. Looking at the photographs of the devastation wrought by the war, I can project myself into the shoes of the figures dwarfed by those piles of rubble. Those lucky enough to have shoes, that is.

That’s when I realized that history isn’t history to the people who live there. It’s obvious in retrospect, but that’s what I think is the key to writing historical fiction—the characters don’t know they are characters in historical fiction.

To take just one example, our character Helmut doesn’t know anything about The German Revolution as a historical event. What he knows is that one day his father went to a political rally and never came back, and he had to become the sole support of his mother and brothers at seventeen.

It isn’t the things that make headlines or chapters in history books that make up a life, those are things that are only seen afterward, by people who hadn’t been there. Helmut reads in the paper that the UN is voting on the establishment of the state of Israel, and he mentions it in conversation, but what his wife Amalia is going to make for dinner that evening is a thousand times more important to him.

I am realizing that I have to keep asking myself not only, “What was going on in that place, at that time?” but also “What effect, if any, would those events have on my characters?”

What is the Ground Truth? To a young girl in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, National Socialism isn’t an ideology, it’s the thing that makes her work after school making bandages for the troops instead of playing outside with her friends.

Now don’t get me wrong—good research is important, and it’s hard work. If I write that my characters are standing around watching the Soviets build the Berlin Wall, a lot of people are going to point out that construction on the Wall wasn’t begun until 1961. If I’m writing about a character driving a car I need to know what sort of controls that car would have, and how they differ from modern vehicles. Would the car have a radio? Air conditioning? Automatic transmission? What sort of lights, and how are they controlled? Seat belts?

A million details, and there’s a temptation, when researching, to include everything. On the 12th of November, 1947, the writer Emma Orczy, creater of The Scarlet Pimpernil, died. As a writer and a lover of esoterica, I find that a significant event, given Orczy’s influence on popular adventure and mystery stories.

Honestly, though, it’s not something that my characters would have noticed at all. So I resist the temptation to put it in the book. It’s not my story, it’s my character’s story.

What matters most about people isn’t when they lived or where they were born or what language they spoke. What matters most about people is that they are people.

History is something that happens to other people. When it’s happening, it’s not history, it’s just life. One of the themes that Jessika and I have discussed is how in the midst of these huge upheavals, wars and revolutions and reconstructions, life somehow still goes on. People still fall in and out of love, work and struggle, argue and make up, wake up each morning and go to bed each night.

The fundamental things apply.

Misha

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9 Responses to “History Is Something That Happens To Other People”

  1. MishaBurnett May 19, 2014 at 5:23 am #

    Reblogged this on mishaburnett and commented:
    Guest post over at Shannon A Thompson

  2. Harliqueen May 19, 2014 at 5:41 am #

    Really great guest post 🙂

  3. J.R.Barker May 19, 2014 at 7:34 am #

    This is a great post, thank you for sharing.
    I think research is important for any novel, I’ve written a kids book about the Frog Prince. Not something you’d think you’d need to research, but I looked up frogs and their anatomy and the insects and bug they might encounter. It helped me to get a better feel for how my character might struggle.
    I’m also writing a fantasy novel, and this means I can make a lot of things up, but strongholds, castles, fighting and hunting techniques all have to come from somewhere I need a start point. It can seem overwhelming, but it’s worth it in the end I wish you both the all the best.

  4. Simon May 20, 2014 at 3:07 am #

    I’ve been really happy to see how many good things have come out of the “Legendary Author Battles” group I started. While the videos haven’t gotten a lot of views, the group has proven a great way for writers to meet each other, try out collaborative writing and maybe even find a writing partner 🙂
    I’ve started writing with Dave Higgins because of the group. Misha and Jessika are writing together and there have been a few others that have told me they’ve decided to try collaborating.
    I hope you don’t mind me leaving a link to the group, in case anyone else wants to try it out: https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/103622320921072384138

  5. lauraeflores May 20, 2014 at 3:16 am #

    This is so crazy, I just left a comment on another blog (jadereyner.com) for a reply you left Misha, and here I find you again giving great advice! This is going to be useful while I write the second draft of my novel.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Importance of Research | JRBarker101 - May 19, 2014

    […] read a blog on the importance of research for Historical Novels by Shannon A.Thompson and she talked about how she struggles with research.  Now she is writing a historical Novel she […]

  2. May’s Ketchup | Shannon A Thompson - May 31, 2014

    […] History is Something that Happens to Other People by Misha Burnett: The insights from an author who writes historical fiction. […]

  3. Possibly useful writing advice (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog - June 29, 2014

    […] questions. •Shannon Thompson on creating a YouTube channel and videos to promote your work. And here on the importance of seeing people in history as people. •A cheat sheat for body language. •In […]

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