“As with any literary form, there are standards for judging historical novels. They should be historically accurate and steeped in the sense of time and place. We should recognize totems and taboos, food, clothing, vocations, leisure activities, customs, smells, religions, literature, and all that goes into making one time and one place unique from another.” Nilsen and Donelson in Literature for Today’s Young Adults
Authenticity is essential to historical fiction and finding just the right fact to transport readers to a place and time is a critical responsibility for those who write the genre.
Imagine reading the newspapers in late July and early August of 1914:
- July 28 – Austria declares war on Serbia and Russia begins to mobilize in Serbia’s defence;
- August 1 – Russia and Germany declare war on each other;
- August 2 – Germany sends troops into Luxembourg;
- August 3 – France and Germany declare war and that night Germany invades neutral Belgium;
- August 4 – Britain declares war on Germany.
And so it began, one of the most devastating wars the world has ever experienced. How would you feel? Would you rush to enlist? Would you flee your home? Would you dig a hole in the garden to store your precious possessions?
In researching for Lies Told in Silence, a novel set in WWI France, I spent hours trying to understand the lead up to war including the treaties amongst various nations and the enmities that spanned generations. I read article after article to explore European dynamics with empires on the verge of change and long-standing resentments between countries such as Germany and France.
With the mantra ‘show don’t tell’ firmly imprinted on my brain, I decided to use dialogue to help readers appreciate how war began. In one scene, three friends, each with a relatively senior role in the French civil service, discuss the signs pointing to war. In another scene, Helene Noisette – the novel’s main character – asks her mother to explain how Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination has led to war. (Lise is Helene’s mother, Mariele her grandmother, and Jean her brother.)
“And what about Germany?” Mariele said.
Afraid that her legs might fail her, Lise sank into a kitchen chair.
“They’ve invaded Belgium.”
“Belgium?” Mariele said. “But Belgium’s neutral. Germany is violating international convention.”
“I don’t think Germany cares about international convention,” Lise said.
“Can you explain it to me, Maman? How does an assassination in Serbia cause all-out war? I’ve listened but I can’t piece it together,” Helene said, peering at headlines more than two inches high.
Grateful that her daughter had not realized the potential consequences of Germany’s invasion of Belgium—the border of that country less than fifty kilometres from Beaufort—Lise kept her eyes and voice steady. “I know it’s confusing,” she said. “It seems that Austria-Hungary has been trying to dominate Serbia and extend its influence in the Balkans. After the assassination, Austria made all sorts of demands on Serbia. Of course, Serbia wants to protect its sovereignty and therefore used its alliance with Russia to stand up to Austria on a few of their demands. So we have Serbia and Russia united against Austria. Then Austria calls on Germany’s help. They have an alliance too.”
“But what about France?”
“I’m getting to that. Because Russia and France, who are on the eastern and western borders of Germany, have a treaty to support one another, Germany feels threatened. I don’t think Austria expected Russia to come to Serbia’s defence. But when Serbia refused some of Austria’s demands and Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilized against Austria. Then Germany mobilized against Russia. And France had to declare war too.”
As Lise’s explanation unfolded, Helene’s eyes widened and her face paled. “What does Papa think we should do?”
“I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon.
I still find it confusing!
To include a wedding in Lies Told in Silence, I researched the etiquette and customs of French weddings and found NJS Wedding Shop, a source of vintage gowns, with a long article on French wedding traditions.
“The French custom of the all-white wedding gown had been introduced with Anne of Brittany, daughter of Francis II. She wore white at her third marriage in 1499 to Louis XII of France. However it did not come into popular vogue before the 19th century. Along with the impact of neo-classic fashion, brides from French aristocracy and bourgeoisie are reported to wear all white dresses, trimmed with golden or silver embroidery. Major social weddings such as described by the gazettes, from then on, were always seen in white.”
Good to know my character could wear a white wedding dress. But what about the wedding ceremony? I found the following:
“In a church filled with incense and flowers, the couple stands beneath a silk canopy. A predecessor of the veil, a square of silk fabric is held over the bride and groom as the couple received the priest’s final blessing. They [the squares of silk] were designed to protect the couple from descending malice. The same veil is used for the baptism of their newborn child.”
Aha! A unique bit of historical detail to include.
I read about rationing and the rules imposed on French citizens, found a lengthy article on French letter writing and another on the responsibilities of French engineering corps during the war. A translation of a book by General Bernhardi Germany and the Next War revealed a chapter chillingly titled “The Duty to Make War.”
These are just a few examples of how research weaves its way into stories. Writers of the genre have to love the research almost as much as the writing of historical fiction.
M.K. Tod, November 30, 2015
M. K, Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History.