“The novel, if I may express it so, is the ‘picture of the manners of every age’. To the philosopher who seeks to know the nature of man, it is as indispensable as history. The historian’s pencil can draw a man only in his public roles, when he is not truly himself: ambition and pride cover his face with a mask which shows only these two passions and not the man entire. The novelist’s pen, on the other hand, captures his inner truth and catches him when he puts his mask aside, and the resulting sketch, which is far more interesting, is also much truer; that is the point of novels.” – Essay on Novels – The Marquis de Sade.
What a weighty responsibility lies on the shoulders of the novelist then. To capture the truth of an age, to illuminate that which history’s light does not reach. It seems terribly important, doesn’t it? I’m considering this quote from the perspective of one who is researching and writing a story out of time.
I enjoy reading historical fiction. I’m attempting to write historical fiction –a story set in the period during and around the Great War. There are many challenges in writing a story outside the time in which you are living. Of course there are plentiful books of history, analysis of the actual battles and the geopolitical situation that preceded the conflict. But how does a writer put him or herself into the mind of a person who lived through it? Peel away the mask and find the inner truth?
Wouldn’t it be great to have a time machine and go back to see for yourself? Or the next best thing –access to a person or persons who lived through it and could give you eyewitness accounts? In the case of World War One, too much time has slipped away from that massive calamity and the last veteran of the trenches passed away in 2009 at the age of 111! What about a younger member of that generation?
One way ‘generation’ is defined is by all the people whose lives crossed during a particular period of time. Thusly, a member of that ‘generation’ could be the child or younger sibling of the WWI contemporary. Such a person may be able to recount the stories told by another, or to have memories of the time in question as an aware child or adolescent (although they would be getting scarce at this point too). My own father was 7 years old when the Armistice was achieved and he remembers the church bells ringing, bringing everyone into the streets to hear the news. (Incidentally my own father also passed away in 2009 at the grand old age of 97). Nevertheless, valuable information can be gained from talking with the second hand witness.
My point is that the ‘feel’ of a time period isn’t fully realized by simply reading the history books. I find it supremely insightful that the Marquis refers to ‘the historian’s pencil’ but the ‘novelist’s pen.’ The former can be erased and modified while the latter is permanent. You must delve into the arts and culture of the day. Listen to the music, peruse the art, read the popular books of fiction and poetry –there was a time when poetry was popular. If available, watch the films of the time. (Obviously some things are dependent on the advent of certain technologies). Of the things you can read, memoirs can be helpful, however, the opportunity for rationalization, embellishment or self aggrandizing is always there, so take these with a grain of salt.
For Here Lies a Soldier, I researched some material that might seem trivial or picky but I felt was important to my setting. How to clean a Victorian Era home, was one thing for example. I wasn’t about to rely on Downton Abby for my information. Another bit of research I did was on the types of homes a working family would live in –this for the other set of characters in the story. Illnesses and how they were treated, the types of food they ate, the clothing, the weather for the climate and the season –all these things tell you how the people lived.
I came across a series of War Letters in my searching for materials. This collection (available on Amazon) is of the letters of ordinary soldiers writing home to their families. I cannot wait to dig into this treasure. Imagine reading the sentiments of the common man addressing the people he loved. Some of it will be mundane, but there is even much to learned from that: What did they ask their families to send them? Warm socks, new underwear? Did they make friends? Did they pray or lose faith?
As you can imagine, I am anxious to pick up the novelist’s pen and return to Here Lies a Soldier, finish the sketch of my characters both in the past and the present. But first I must finish Breaking Bread. Onward…