Just The Facts, Ma’am by Jan Edwards

I am very much aware of the fact that I can be a bit of a cracked record when it comes to research, constantly banging on about how important it is to check even the smallest details before using them in any sort of writing.
It is something that I maintain is hugely important, but when I  came against a phenomenon of commonly held perceptions and whether being correct in the face of general opinion will alienate a reader, I had to wonder if veracity is always seen in that light through a readers’ perception.
A few weeks ago I read a small section from the first draft of Bunch Courtney bk 2. This latest crime novel is firmly anchored in the first weeks of May 1940.  Dunkirk, the Blitz and Battle of Britain are yet to come, yet May remains a pivotal month during the conflict as a whole, not least because it saw a momentous change in our Government.  
As I saw it, in order to place a peg in time, quoting a newspaper headline in which the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain faced a vote of no confidence, dated events quite precisely.
‘Oh, but you are wrong,’ several of the group cried. ‘Churchill was Prime Minister throughout the war years.’
‘Not so,’ I replied, lacing up the hood of my imaginary researchers’ anorak firmly beneath my chin. ‘Chamberlain resigned and was replaced by Churchill on 10th May 1940.’
It was argued that stating Chamberlain as PM at that point might raise questions in the minds of some readers for the above mentioned reasons, and that the distraction of Googling the facts could risk my losing their interest.
It made me think. Should I fudge the facts merely to avoid confusion?
One of Churchill’s first moves in his first month as PM was the mandatory internment of “all potential enemy aliens”, a move that Chamberlain had done all he could to delay because he feared a backlash against innocent people fleeing Hitler and the war. These, I felt, where the event-led issues against which my book are set and thus wholly pertinent to my plot.
Others in the group agreed with me and declared that facts were facts, and it was a given that all writers should use them correctly, especially when they fly directly in the face of misconception.
As I had been reading from a first draft I let the matter pass. The text will be rewritten several times, because that is how I work, and as I had clearly failed to get the point across in this early version it obviously requires some stern revision.
The second point of research raised, however, was a correction too far.  My protagonists had decided to go ‘up to London’ to shop for some urgently needed clothes. Once again the banner of verisimilitude was raised. This time over that old wartime chestnut; rationing.
‘Ah, ‘I was told.  ‘This would not happen because these women would need sufficient clothing coupons to spare for somebody who did not live in that household and that would be very unlikely.’
‘Not so,’ say I. ‘Clothing coupons were not issued until June 1941- a whole year later.’  
I do realise how many people fall into the trap of believing that all things were rationed from the outset (including many items that were never rationed at all). And I can quite see how a casual mention on such a point might raise questions.
But... In my humble opinion it behoves all writers of historical fiction to be as accurate as we are able.
The Chamberlain point can be rephrased easily enough, but shopping is never to be taken lightly whatever the era – and facts are facts!
In her Reith Lectures earlier this year the historian Dame Hilary Mantel raise a similar point, saying something along the lines of; “Our image of a squalid, filthy, disease-ridden past isn’t entirely accurate. Life was precarious, childbirth was dangerous and epidemics did kill, but people wore freshly washed linen, observed complex table manners, associated dirt with disease and managed to retain most of their teeth. In the pre-industrial era, the air even smelled sweeter and sounded quieter.” Mantel says, “When we imagine a lost world, we must first rearrange our senses – listen and look, before judging.”
It is comforting to know that I am not alone in wanting to address inaccurate perceptions of our past, and whilst I may not have Dame Hilary's clout, this should not detract from the points we have to make.
Or alternatively, when it comes to research for my crime fiction, what better than to paraphrase one the of the mis-quoted lines attributed to a fictional crime-buster of yesteryear...
‘Just the facts, Ma’am.’

Jan Edwards can be found on:
Blog: https://janedwardsblog.wordpress.com/

Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats:


Rowena House said…
I sympathise, empathise & understand this dilemma completely. The myths about my era (WW1) are also very deeply embedded. I'm sure lots of us (as historical fiction writers) are raising a glass to Dame Hilary for her fantastic Reith lectures. Good luck!
Bill Kirton said…
I agree, Jan. However careful we are with facts, readers' (false) perceptions will often call them into question. Historical facts are mostly easy to check, though. When writing The Figurehead and The Likeness, I think I probably spent more time trying to establish whether particular expressions or words were in use in the 1840s. Some of them sound surprisingly modern and others, which I was taking for granted, didn't appear until much later.
Chris Longmuir said…
I agree facts are facts. But it was the disbelief of my publisher's editor who refused point blank to believe that the Women's Police services were set up by suffragette organisations in 1914 that really riled me and led to me getting rid of the publisher in question by simply refusing to budge. One thing it did teach me was to include a brief historical end note with the salient facts.
AliB said…
Excellent post Jan and something that worries me constantly. I think if I stumble on something I doubted. I would just google to find out who was right. Language is another minefield. Like Bill I do worry about forms of expression, on the other hand I think authors have to find a way of making historical characters authentic without nessecarily replicating actual speech patterns. Mantel has also spoken or written or spoken about this somewhere or other. I certainly hope my historical notes will get me out of any trouble I get myself into!

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