It's history, Jim, but not as we know it...


Sorry for the partially misleading title, this has nothing to do with Captain Kirk or Star Trek. As those familiar with this blog may know, my brother is called Jim. The heading is the inspiration for a talk I'm preparing for a book event in Wick, early October. It is being organised by Wick writer Glyn Salisbury and more on this may follow in future blogs.

My talk, as you may have surmised, is on writing historical fiction - or at least my experiences of doing so. Hence the quick sand warning in the photo! Historical fiction is a broad church, so to speak. My first novel The Organist (Yolk Publishing 2016) can be described as a historical love story, set in 1911/1912. I wanted to set it just before the Great War and as I first had the notion to write it in 2012 I thought a hundred years before that was a good place to begin - or end in the case of the story. Being a 'traditional' historical fiction novel, the history was well researched, focusing on detail. Real events, such as the theft of the Mona Lisa and the tragedy of the Titanic were included, as they would have been talked about at the time. As it is a work of fiction though, I could have my fictitious hero, Gavin McEwan, meet the actual composer and organist Charles-Marie Widor.

My second set of history based books are the Marna Mystery Series whodunits, a collaboration with my sister and written under the pseudonym of BK Bryce. These are historical crime novels set in 2600 BCE. For these books, my historian sister Kathleen did most of the research. The time period was chosen to fit when Skara Brae, the Ness of Brodgar, Maeshowe and the Standing Stones of Stenness were all in use. The Ring of Brodgar was just being started. Archaeological evidence could provide so much information, but much had to be based on human nature, instinct and supposition, allowing for use of the imagination, especially when it came to the elements of crime.

The Dalliances of Monsieur D'Haricot  (Luna Press Publishing 2021) was a different matter. It is a fantasy novel set in 1936, the end of La Belle Epoch, when Europe was in turmoil and descending towards WWII. With it being in living memory of some folk the spirit of the times had to be right, but as it is a fantasy novel the exact details of smaller issues - such as the interior compartment of trains-  could be altered to suit the story by adding 'fantasy' effects.

Finally, my latest novel Travels with an Organ to Perilous Lands (Blossom Spring Publishing 2022) is a humorous, fantasy adventure. I wanted to give it a dash of late Victorian daring-do and innovation and therefore set it in 1882. The higher fantasy elements in the story allow for more suspension of belief. Anything not invented at the time could be magical plucked from a mystical air, the main focus of the story being on humour and adventure rather than history. It should be noted, though, that simply calling a book 'a fantasy' is is not an excuse for sloppy research.

I have been asked why I don't write novels set in the present. One of the reasons is that the present doesn't stay present for long. By the time an idea has transformed into a first draft, an edited version and then a published novel can take several years and the world has moved on. I have an unpublished manuscript (on a floppy disc) of a story I wrote set in the present time of 1992 - no smart phones or social media, although one character does complain that no-one used a pen any more.

For now at least, although the sub-genres may continue to change, I shall stick to the safety of historical fiction.



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