Researching and Writing Historical Fiction, by Catherine Czerkawska

Cover image, courtesy of Glasgow Museums
I wrote this piece for a local (Glasgow) writers’ newsletter, but since I know a great many people who enjoy reading and writing historical fiction, including bloggers and visitors to Authors Electric, it seems worth while reblogging here, with a few tweaks and additions, especially since I’ve just agreed to tackle historical fiction for this year’s eBook festival.

I’ve always written a mixture of historical and contemporary fiction and plays. My first degree, from Edinburgh University, was in Mediaeval Studies and then I went on to do a Masters in something called Folk Life Studies, essentially a form of social history. I still love research of all kinds and that can be a curse as well as a blessing for an author. You have to know when to stop. But you also have to know when you need to know more and you have to learn to ‘give yourself permission’ to fictionalise something that may well be an unwieldy collection of miscellaneous facts spiced with lots of speculation.

I’m a voracious reader as well as a writer, and my most important criterion for judging a book is something akin to trust. If I believe in the world created by the writer, (however unfamiliar or bizarre) then I can forgive all kinds of other things. With historical fiction, the only way to take your reader with you is to immerse yourself in a particular time and place. But you don’t have to use everything you learn in the process. That will only result in the kind of book where the research seems to be bolted on, as though the writer needed to use every fascinating fact at all costs. Your research will inform your fiction, even when you don’t use it directly. But I’ve read scrupulously researched pieces of historical fiction that – even though they contained no obvious anachronisms – just felt unbelievable. Factual accuracy, however desirable, doesn’t always result in truth.

Everyone will have a different approach to this. There is no single right way, and it would be interesting to hear how other writers tackle this. I do a lot of research, but then I always make myself stop before I’m quite ready and write the first rough draft of the book or play. It’s in writing this early draft that I find out more of the things I really need to know, as opposed to the things that are fascinating but relatively unimportant. Then I do some more research. And I will often repeat the process several times. By that stage, I’m ‘interrogating’ characters who already exist in my mind.

This is the way it worked with the narrator, William Lang, in my new novel, The Physic Garden.  The garden in question is the medicinal herb garden of the old college of Glasgow University where William is a gardener. I researched the background of William Lang and Thomas Brown, the two friends who are central to the novel, for a short play, originally aimed at Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue, for which I had already written three plays, two of them historical. But when I started to draft it out, I knew that there was much more to the story. I needed more elbow room and eventually wrote it as a novel.

I already knew a lot about early 19th century Scotland from research for radio work, non fiction research and stage plays. I did a certain amount of specific research about the milieu in which William found himself. But later, once his character and especially his ‘voice’ – this is a first person narration – was firmly fixed in my head, the additional research became easier and much more focused. At some point on its journey to publication, it was suggested that it would be better as a third person narration. I simply couldn’t do it. William’s voice was much too strong, much too insistent. It was William Lang who told me what I needed to know. It was often as though he was shaking me awake in the middle of the night to tell me something else. If this sounds just a little spooky, it’s probably because it was! 

Way back when this novel was first submitted to my then agent, she passed it to an intern who remarked that it was ‘just an old man telling his story.’ Predictably, this casually thrown away remark was indelibly printed on my mind and it took some years and a lot of encouragement before I could go back to the novel and realise that she was wrong. Or only right in the most unimportant sense. It IS an old man telling his story. Just that it's an interesting and at times devastating story.

Waterstone's shop window.
Now, I’m researching a new novel and I’m in that preliminary state where you find yourself pursuing random odds and ends of information across the internet. It’s another piece of fiction based on real characters and I have just made a discovery which – although it isn’t earth shattering in an academic sense  – is gold dust for a writer of fiction because it evokes something about a relationship between two people that has – quite literally – brought a tear to my eye, this morning. It is also something that seems to have gone completely unnoticed by the ‘experts’. My fingers are just itching to fictionalise it.

Catherine Czerkawska

The Physic Garden is published by Saraband. ( and is available from many bookshops and online from Amazon.
The paperback will be launched on 27th March at Waterstones Argyle Street, Glasgow, at 7.00pm
There will be another launch in Ayr Waterstones on 3rd April at 6.30pm.
The eBook version is already widely available.


CallyPhillips said…
Fascinating Catherine. I am a big fan of The Physic Garden and I think it is because the world is so compellingly real (as well as the great characters). And I really like your tip of stopping research 'before you are quite ready' to write the first draft. This is a gold-dust comment!!
As for 'voice' I think this is one of those 'fashion' statements which one has to learn to take with a pinch of salt. In screenwriting it was always 'don't use voiceover' until the fashion changed... as a writer you need to gain the confidence to know you are telling the story the right way and then (as you did) wait for 'fashion' to catch up/change as it inevitably does. As a writer one needs to learn when those nice 'gatekeepers' are just sending you off on a task to 'keep you busy' or get you off their desks and when it's genuinely good advice. Your advice above I find very useful and I'm looking forward to more come ebook festival time.

My tip would be for writers to immerse themselves in the writing of the period they are working with. For me some of the great strength's of Crockett are that he's writing social history - when he writes historical fiction we get another level because we are seeing a 19thc perspective on an earlier time and when he writes his own contemporary period we still get a 'retro' view of the world which is often quite different from what we might think. Yes, it's often not politically correct but I have found it fascinating to see how contemporary writer was dealing with/viewing the European situation in the decade leading up to the First World War. In the same way I found George Orwell's letters fascinating as an insight into the 'real' life of the 2nd World war... there is so much to learn from going to the 'contemporary' writers - for style, for language, for voice, for world view... Enough. Thanks for a thought provoking post. And all the best with the Physic Garden launch/es this month... great to know that many more people will finally get the chance to read this!
Bill Kirton said…
First, I echo Cally's remarks about how inspiring and thought-provoking this is. You know already that I'm a big fan of The Physic Garden and I've never understood how that intern could make such a comment. In historical fiction, the characters and what they do and say ARE the 'facts' we need to know, and when they're as real and as sympathetic as William, they link directly with the 21st century 'reality' in which we're reading them. Now hurry up with that next novel. I need to read it.
JO said…
What a fascinating post. I did a history degree, and can be a pedant for novelists getting the facts right. A few details that are completely wrong and I can't engage with the story. Drown the novel in research and I'm bored - I need to know about people in this place and time.

So I see historical fiction as a dialogue between this history (which can be verified - though we could, of course, have a discussion about the nature of historical truth) and the story.
Dennis Hamley said…
An absorbing post, Catherine. You know thatI regard The Physic Garden as just about the finest first-person tour de force I have ever read in which the research is used immaculately. Yes, my attitude to and experience of research for historical novels is much like yours. I knew enough about the Middle Ages to make it worthwhile embarking on the Joslin de Lay journe., I already had, I think, the feel of the age. The detail which I could only find by weeks in the BL was daunting. The act of writing allowed me to select what was relevant as I went along. But I've also done research for a doctorate and I find a vital difference between the two types. For the PhD I knew everything had to be kept, used, evaluated and put into a definite context in an argument. For novels, research has to be used, interpreted and then,without distorting it unduly, made to work for the novel rather than being there for its own sake. Was it Martin Amis who said 'the art of the novelist is to appear to know a lot more than you actually do'? There's some truth in that. And characters do have minds of their which are shaped directly by the societies in which they are depicted . In Out of the Mouths of Babes I thought I understood the terrain I was crossing. It was meant to be a hopeful, healing book. It's hard now to remember, even credit, that. But the characters really did come to me one night and say to me, 'You can't do this. We are irreconcilable' and I knew my own understanding had moved on several notches. I suddenly realised I was writing a tragedy.
Dennis Hamley said…
And to find something in research hitherto undiscovered and unnoticed is a gift from heaven. In researching for my still-to-be finished novel on Coleridge I found something very significant which nobody else seems to know. I'm making it one of the two centrepieces of the novel. The other is a possibility which nobody ever seems to have considered. I'm so elated by these two 'discoveries' that it's ridiculous that I didn't finish the damned thing years ago.
Lydia Bennet said…
Totally spot-on post Catherine, something I feel strongly about as I too had history as part of a degree, in the form of ancient forms of English/Norse. Many of my plays and Lydia Bennet's Blog rely on historical research, perhaps most of all my Gallipolli play - I tend to immerse myself in research and that world, then after the first draft, go through and cut much of the 'got to put this in, it's so fascinating people should know it' info-dumping! It's a bit like homeopathy, even when you leave most of the research out, it somehow informs and enlivens the result, unlike that gained by doing less research in the first place. The Physic Garden is a superb novel as many of us know. I hadn't realised the 'old man' comment was from an intern - but there is quite a lot of ageism in publishing, yet another advantage for indie ebooks. Congratters on finding a lovely snipped nobody else noticed!
Susan Price said…
That 'just an old man telling his story' has to be the stupidest dismissal of a book ever - and that it was from an intern is no excuse. This was an intern who wanted to work in publishing!
'Just a nobody of a governess telling her story...'
'Just a nobody of a blacksmith's brother-in-law telling his story...'
AliB said…
Hi Catherine
AS a non-historian writing a historical novel (oh dear that already sounds lie a big mistake) I absolutely relate to the idea of stopping before you know everything. I could have gone on researching forever, but now I only stop writing to go off and find out something specific. Cally's point about immersion is good too, but I'm in two minds about using contemporary writing as a starting point for voice. Having read letters of some of my characters and got the voices in my head, I think they are coming over a bit too wordy for the modern ear. Oh well, a work in progress! By the way as I skim read I thought you had said 'fatal accuracy' - some kind of Freudian reading slip?
Lovely and thought provoking comments as ever (and thank-you for the nice words about the book!) Isn't is all interesting? Dennis, I love that Martin Amis quote. He's right in a way. You can't know everything, but you know the truth of something and your job is to convey that in as believable a way as you possibly can. Fiction is a sort of tightrope walk, isn't it? Bernard MacLaverty talks about 'made up truth'. I do sometimes wonder if writers of historical fiction - perhaps because they can bring imagination to bear on the facts - do sometimes make fascinating discoveries. You don't have to say 'it DID happen like that.' But in wondering 'what if?' you can always say 'it might have happened like that!' Can't wait to read the novel, Dennis.
When I was working on The Curiosity Cabinet, the editor suggested I read some letters of the period - problem was that they were English letters of the period, and they were all wrong for my Scottish characters. Her queried anachronisms weren't anachronistic at all, just lowland Scots - although I had used the words with a fairly light touch, as I hope I have in The Physic Garden. With the Physic Garden I did use some actual letters of the time - as well as a few 'commonplace book' entries from an intriguing document I found in an unexpected place - so I know they're right. But even then, I did some editing and pruning. It has to be accessible and readable, I think. Dennis, your review of TPG was one of the most cheering I've ever had!
Dennis Hamley said…
You may have to wait a long time, Catherine. I have to finish the third Ellen first so it can be published this year during the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And Ransom are asking for more stuff and that's a contact I don't wish to foul up. But don't worry: it's all up here (taps head wisely and knowingly).

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