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T. D. Griggs: Historical Fiction and Story Telling

2012 August 20
by lucinda matthews-jones

T. D. Griggs

Research. It’s the first thing readers ask me about.

How much did I do? How long did it take? Am I an expert on the period? I’m always flattered by such questions. They mean I’ve got away with it.

Because I am not an historian. History is not my business. Storytelling is.

My latest novel, DISTANT THUNDER (T.D.Griggs Orion Books), is set in the 1890s. I’m attracted by the huge confidence of Victorian Britain, in contrast to today’s endless self-questioning, and by the bitter ironies inherent in the imperial project.

But I do not seek to write the history of these things. That isn’t my job. I write about two people caught up in the machinery of empire, and I set it in that period because I don’t believe their story could have unfolded in the same way in any other.

In my previous novel, THE WARNING BELL (under my pen-name Tom Macaulay) the key to the story is an atrocity in World War 2 France. The essential dishonesty of the way the French Resistance is still portrayed plays a key role in the novel, but only as it mirrors the troubled relationship between a father and son. The story is theirs.

Nevertheless, historical research is crucial to novels like these. But it is as easy to do too much as to do too little. Over-researching is a displacement activity, and if you’re not careful it can find its way into the story and distort it (‘it took me a month to read that – I have to use it!’).

So I like to write the first draft as quickly as possible, researching only what I need to move to the next scene. I back-research the doubtful passages later. This keeps me focused on the story itself. Of course I need to know the basics before I start writing anything. My current novel is set in the Boer War, and even for the first draft I need to know when Mafeking was besieged, who was in charge of the opposing forces, and the basics roots and causes of the conflict. What I don’t need at this stage is the regimental make-up of British forces, nor the nature of farming on the Veldt, nor which marques of automobile were on the streets of Cape Town by May 1900.

That said, I will need to know all these facts and many, many more by the time the manuscript is submitted.

Because I will not be allowed to get things wrong.

Now, as a creative writer, there’s something counter intuitive about this. Artistic licence should permit me to write what I like. Novelists are under no obligation to stick to the truth, and are free to write about things that can’t happen, which defy logic or the laws of physics. Science fiction and the supernatural are two of the most fruitful literary fields and both have generated wonderful work.

And indeed, some writers have tried this with history, too, and altered facts to fit their fiction. Len Deighton’s SSGB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland are good examples.

But these are not so much historical novels as counterfactual debates. And it’s significant that both deal with alternative outcomes to World War 2, which is real and present to many of us, and whose effects are still working their way out. That makes it worthwhile to discuss alternative scenarios. But it’s hard to imagine counterfactual fantasies about a Trafalgar in which the French win, or an English victory at Hastings. These are too firmly fixed in our psyche.

No, in conventional historical fiction artistic licence does not confer complete freedom. That’s because historical novelists work on a prepared canvas. Readers are already familiar (or stridently believe they are) with the landscape against which the action takes place. They may even know some of the characters. I use Winston Churchill, for instance, in my latest book.

On the one hand, having the stage already set allows the writer to hit the ground running. If I say my latest is set in 1890s London you already have a picture in your mind of hackney carriages, rich men in stovepipe hats and tarts in Covent Garden doorways You can smell the coal smoke on the air even before you start reading.

On the other hand, there are limits to the liberties I can take. I can put Churchill in my story, and even make up dialogue for him. But he has to stay in character, and within reach of the facts. I can’t put him in the Rifle Brigade when he was in fact in the 4th Hussars. I can’t make him talk like a lily-livered wimp when in reality he was a bumptious glory-seeker. Well, I could – but there would be a perfect storm of protest if I tried.

And readers of historical fiction are extraordinarily sensitive to these things. Someone, somewhere will pick up the most minute inconsistency, even when it has no bearing on the story at all. (They call these eagle-eyed critics ‘trainspotters’ in the trade.) I was once corrected for putting an unfeasible lefthand magazine on a 1944 Oerlikon cannon: the average reader might not have lost much sleep over that one, I thought.

And yet, when I’m a reader, I’m just as bad. Bernard Cornwell admitted in one of his books that for plot reasons he moved a Dutch regiment from one place to another in the line of battle. I wouldn’t have done that, even though it can’t make any possible difference to anyone. And I can be more pedantic still. It niggled me unreasonably that in a novel of the Cyprus conflict a British soldier used a Bren gun with a belt feed, when the weapon is in fact fed by magazine. What possible difference this could make to anything I don’t know, but I happen to have used a Bren gun, and that little bit of history feels like property to me.

And perhaps that’s the core of the matter. We own history, and don’t want it tampered with. To do so affects our view of who we are and how we got here.

Joseph Conrad insisted that fiction was history, if it was anything at all. But most historical writers would have their work cut out to convince their readers of that.

Perhaps Voltaire made the more useful observation. He described history as the lie generally agreed upon. It seems that historical novelists break that agreement at their peril.

My new novel, DISTANT THUNDER (by T.D.Griggs), is now out. Published by Orion, it’s available as hardback, paperback and e-book. The last one, THE WARNING BELL (also published by Orion under my pen-name Tom Macaulay) is still available as paperback or e-book. For more info, take a look at my website at www.tdgriggs.co.uk, and follow me on Twitter @TDGRIGGS1.
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