WHY HISTORY IS A PAIN IN THE BUTT by Colin Falconer

Posted by on Jul 21, 2014 in Featured Book, Historical Research | 4 comments

East-India185x280aThe facts are a constant thorn in the side of every author of historical fiction. HF readers hate it if you get your facts wrong so you sweat blood on research. God help you if you make a mistake. I once had a reader take me to task over a freaking tomato, so you overlook research at your peril, even one line in a 150,000 word book.

Salad is particularly tricky.

BUT you must also remember that you’re not an historian, you’re a novelist. My sister-in-law’s constant complaint – and she always has her nose in a book, God bless her cotton socks – is that some writers bombard her with too many facts. ‘I just want to get into the story,’ is her mantra. ‘I hate it when I have to start skipping pages.’

So she is my litmus test. When I give her my books to read I always say: ‘Did you have to skip?’

If she had to skip, I cut that bit out.

The most difficult thing about writing history is that it’s chaotic – like life.

Because it is life, only life that happened a while ago.

A novel is not chaotic, by its very definition. Neither is a movie. That’s why the makers of Braveheart, for instance, messed with history like they did. They were trying to make an epic and when the facts got in their way, they just ignored them

Authors can’t do that. Film directors can play tennis with the net down. We can’t.

My latest novel, ‘East India’, was based on one of Australia’s most iconic stories, the wreck of the Dutch retourschip, the ‘Batavia’, which grounded on a reef fifty miles off the West Australian coast. But this was no ordinary shipwreck. One of the senior VOC officers decided to turn the islands into a personal kingdom, he and his band of mutineers murdering all those who were of no use to them – such as the male passengers and the children – and forcing the women to become sex slaves.

He was defied and thwarted by a small band of Company soldiers who built a fort out of limestone rocks and made their own weapons from flotsam and held them off until help arrived.

It’s a truly extraordinary tale – but it’s not a novel. There’s been many books written about the episode in Australia, and I’ve read most of them, but it’s deeply unsatisfying as a story. The main character turns out to be a bit of a coward. No one really tries to defend the women. The real hero only emerges on the last ten pages.

Sorry, doesn’t work.

So even though my story was closely based on the ‘Batavia’ story, I realised early on that I had to fictionalise it. I changed all the names. I called the ship the Utrecht. I messed with the facts so much it became an original story but I made it clear in my afterword where the inspiration was from.

History was still a pain in the butt though, because there were some parts of the story that just begged to be retold and yet, like much of real life, they didn’t make sense. Could a sixteenth century skipper really navigate an open boat not much larger than a racing skiff across the open sea all the way to Indonesia? Well yes they could – he did.

But there are other problems you can never get right. No matter what I do, someone will write me and say I’ve drawn too much from real history or missed something about a tomato.

But for my litmus test I always go back to my sister. ‘What did you think?’

‘Couldn’t put it down.’

‘Great. Did you skip anything?’

‘Not a paragraph. I cried at the end.’

There you go. Great.

Job done.

Colin Falconer, July 21, 2014

4 Comments

  1. Your post sums up my feelings on “getting it right” in historical fiction perfectly. As an author and the editor/publisher of a small press that publishes historical fiction, I, first and foremost, want the story to sweep the reader away. Facts are fine, but fiction is, after all, fiction. :)

  2. Colin — great post! You are so lucky to have such a devoted “skip-chaser” available to you. I certainly could use one! Part of my own issue with detail is that my mind can’t seem to connect with any story without sufficient detail and factual touchstones. These help me write, but it would certainly be very useful to know exactly when enough is enough.

  3. I am a historian as well as a novelist, so for me the details that get put into a historical novel must be as accurate as possible. The problem with tomatoes (poison in Europe, food staple in the Americas) is that if the tomato shows up incorrectly, it makes the author look uninformed. In one historical novel I read, the author described pumpkins at a market in Europe before 1492 — pumpkins are a new world plant and would not have been in a market until after 1500. I don’t like a lot of extraneous detail any more than your sister-in-law (you are lucky, indeed, to have her as reader), but what is there should be correct. The science fiction authors have the same problem, by the way. But not from me.

  4. That says it all.

    I’ve been attacked for “My Splendid Concubine” by purists who worship Robert Hart and want to believe the main character was perfect in every way, but they have no evidence to support their thinking.

    In addition,what there is from his college years at the Queens College in Belfast pretty much supports the fact that he could have behaved the way he did in the novel when he was 18 and 19—years before he moved on to the world stage and became famous.