Dear Dr Darwin,
I know we have to get the facts right, or risk the reader not buying into their side of the contract of fiction, but I do get so fed up with having to fact-check the whole time. When I sit down to write, I have stacks of books and files of images, all of which I have to keep referring to for one reason or another. It’s like doing an essay: the scenes are horrible to write and, which is what really matters, they’re even worse to read.
Expiring of Alexandria.
Oh, my sympathies! You’re like a charioteer ordered to drive a badly-matched pair: your storytelling mind will only run if you give it its head, while your fact-checking mind wants a firm hand on the reins and instructions for every step. They’re constantly jibbing and pulling against each other as you struggle down the course.
The first thing to do is to prevent two such horses being put to the same chariot in the first place. Rose Tremain’s advice to read and research vastly first, and then “leave the facts behind” and write the first draft without going near a book, is very wise.
But, paradoxically, the key to letting your storyteller’s imagination run is often to plan. Even if you’re not a detailed planner, after the research and the imagining of the overall arc of the story, try making a list, from memory, of really big and tasty scenes which the story might include. Those will include both imagined and historically-based events; is there anything you don’t know which will mean you get stuck during the first draft, or risk a real, tiresome disaster of plotting?
Details of armour or food probably don’t matter for now, details of journey-times, marriage-laws and whose dagger actually killed Julius Caesar might. (Sorry, did you not know about that one?) Don’t just turn straight to the books: make a list of what you’ll need, look them up one by one, make notes if that helps you to get things into your head, and put the books away.
The same is true at scene level: if you know what a scene is going to need, you can read up for it the day or week before, make notes if it helps, then put those books back on the shelf, and just write. Do also put the notes away: their real function is to get what matters to stick in your brain, not to be a stand-in for the textbook.
A last tip: have the courage not to stop for things you don’t yet know, just make a note and keep moving. That way you stay in Storyteller mode, which is vital if you’re to keep in touch with the pace and shape of the reader’s experience of the story.
For the larger problems and queries that crop up I keep a “worry-list”, and everything, including missing research material, goes down on there. My record at the end of a first draft was 330 items, but lots of the earlier ones had solved themselves, and working through the rest was orderly and satisfying.
For smaller not-yet-solved problems of detail I just put [square brackets] and a note of what’s missing in the text itself. That way, the piece reads fairly naturally as I’m working, and later when I search for the [ ]s I’m not scratching my head to remember what the problem was. For example, my first draft might have things like this:
We had been speaking of [recent disastrous referendum], but now he groped inside his [warm thick outer garment] and brought out a [scroll of parchment or paper? Wax tablet notebook?]; I took it gingerly – because who knew what this knowledge might lead to? – and stuffed it into my scrip.
Of course, “[warm thick outer garment]” might be “[thin, ragged outer garment]” depending on the character, but the historical vocabulary word doesn’t matter yet. However, if the scene turns on the scroll or tablet being destroyed, or being used as a weapon, I would probably stop and look up which it should be, because the physicality of that is going to make a big difference to the action of the scene.
Got a question for Dr Darwin? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. We can’t promise a reply but all questions will be considered for future columns.
Emma Darwin’s latest book, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction, is out now. Emma has a PhD in Creative Writing (so she really is a doctor), was for several years an Associate Lecturer with the Open University, and shares her knowledge on her blog This Itch of Writing. Her fiction includes The Mathematics of Love, which was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Best First Book and other prizes, and the Sunday Times bestseller A Secret Alchemy.