With the New Year now actually under way it seems that things can return to normal. I am, in a creative sense at least, grateful for that. Although I tried to do some work over the holidays it just did not seem to be enough; I was left feeling frustrated. This is not a complaint, just an observation upon the reality of having family commitments, which I do not begrudge.
So, back to the writing then. If I needed any motivation that came from a review of my first novel ‘The War Wolf’ by reader Kimball O’Hara from California (yeah, a little name dropping there), who not only gave the book 5 stars (thank you very much) but also congratulated me on my research of the early medieval period. Now, I can tell you that this went down quite well. I take my research seriously, although the fact that I actually enjoy it probably helps there as well. The War Wolf is a historical fiction novel and, I believe, that if you are going to write in the genre then you have to do the leg work, so to speak. I admire people who have a passion for something. There are readers of historical fiction who definitely have that passion for their chosen genre. They can spot a writer who has skimmed the subject material and they will savage the associated book accordingly.
Personally, I agree with them. To write well you have to write with confidence and when writing about history you have to possess a certain degree of knowledge. A writer does not have to be a student of the subject steeped in it to degree level, after all, the whole point is to write a story, not a thesis. I had to keep reminding myself of this fact when I was rewriting the first draft of The War Wolf, it helped me turn what had become an essay on 1066 into a novel instead. This meant cutting excessive amounts of detailed information from the text, which was painful but necessary. The said information was interesting, at least to me, but friends who read the first draft insisted that it slowed the pace of the story too much. They were right. It is for these kind of reasons that successful writers encourage newcomers like myself to rewrite the book once it is finished.
After attempting to balance the historical fact with the requirements of an entertaining story what you end up with is something of a compromise; it is called an historical fiction novel. Of course, if you cut too much of the research out you drift into the shallows usually frequented by lazy writers, where a certain species of critical shark lives. If you leave too much in many readers become bored and jump ship before getting to the final destination. It was very gratifying, therefore, to have a reader praise me for getting so much right and yet still offer them an entertaining read.
Now you might think that writing an alternative history novel would not raise a similar problem but the fact is that it does. I think that the best imaginative stories always retain an essential element of solid fact. Eugenica takes British history up to 1931 and then bends it to produce a slightly different result, a new social and political landscape to explore. The fact remains that the facts must retain their integrity, however.
The level of research required was, essentially, just the same as that for my previous novels. In fact, considering the scientific element surrounding eugenic principles and the process of genetic inheritance, some of the detail was even more stringent than what I needed to make Saxon Britain come to life. Writing an alternative history does not necessarily allow the author more leeway in interpreting the facts that pertain to the chosen period. The key word is authenticity. A book that imparts a degree of authenticity will satisfy most readers. It will possess a core of truth and reason that will form the foundation of the tale that is being woven. I like to think that the more solid this foundation proves to be the more fantastic the tale itself can become.
I do not know how much research is required in other genres as I have only written, so far, in the two subjects mentioned above, but I should imagine that in most instances a certain degree of research is necessary to achieve a level of authenticity. One thing is for sure, when I am busy delving into more research and wondering if I might not be better off doing the actual writing instead, I will remember the kind words of one reader who made the effort to tell me that they appreciated my work because of the trouble I had gone to make it believable.