How “Historical” is Your Novel?

In a previous blog I asked “Tell me something I don’t know”. Glint of Light on Broken Glass is a historical novel – I hope people will learn things by reading it, but it is not a textbook. I have made stuff up. What? You might ask.

Let’s backtrack a few years when I started the novel. I already knew a fair amount about the First World War and also the history, geography and folklore of Guernsey. It was straightforward to write the story using just what I ‘knew’ (or had vaguely remembered). As I grew into the plot, I started researching specific areas to support the story. How I approached the language has already been covered in a previous blog, but I methodically collected phrases that would come in handy and some indeed inspired whole scenes. I walked the island looking for likely locations and checking half-remembered truths as to whether I could see Alderney for that point.

Old maps came in handy, as the island has changed a lot in the past century, with much building work. The Germans also altered the look and shape of the beaches with their anti-tank walls and bunkers. Old photographs were helpful too, although there were some annoying blank spots in the Castel where no-one had seen fit to photograph between 1900 and 1920.

I re-read the history of the Royal Guernsey Light Infantry, and the war experience of the island as a whole. Glint is not a war story as such, I didn’t want to write an adventure story or anti-war polemic, but the military side had to be right; there are too many WW1 ‘experts’ out there watching for authors to blunder. Perhaps the best source of information was the Guernsey Evening Press, and its Weekly editions, which I read though from 1913 to 1919 with excursions to other memorable dates. Its adverts for band concerts, potions and theatre added the background texture. Reports of parades and church services allowed me to be precise at specific points in time. Storms, unseasonal gales and snowfall could find their correct place in the narrative.

RGLIAt times research proved inconvenient, meaning whole sections needed to be moved or subtly re-written. It was never ignored, although at times I decided not to probe too deeply if the story was working well. I was aware of some areas I barely looked into at all, then looked at the growing word count and decided that enough detail was enough. I could go on accumulating information about how people dressed, what they ate, what they planted in their gardens but beyond a point this all becomes words. Enough was enough.

Then I made stuff up. Almost all the characters came from the imagination, barring a couple of instances where I took liberties with actual historical personalities. All the dialogue is made up, as is all the interpersonal action. Even real historical events such as the unveiling of the Victor Hugo statue are simply a backdrop for George, Edith and Arte. Research I don’t need is omitted in a specific sense. The reader does not need to know the detail of the RGLI uniform of 1917, but it is embedded in my head. I see Artie in that uniform as clearly as George sees his mystery woman. The historical writer must avoid information-dumping; the research should not stick up from the page shouting “look at me, I’m a historical fact”. Even when Artie is lecturing George about Guernsey history he approximates the truth and skates over the facts he’s forgotten.  The reader needs to be a subconscious time-traveller, slipping into that distant period and into the mind-set of people who lived there. Much like the way a novel needs a ‘sense of place’, it also needs a sense of time.





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