some of the world is fetched back from the nevernever


Earlier this year I read The Black Hawk by Jo Bourne. It was at a point when I was starting to feel confident in my own book. I felt I was putting the final stitches in, that make stitching invisible; I felt it had become a complex narrative told in pretty serviceable writing. Then I read The Black Hawk.

I remember so clearly that feeling, part joy, part despair. Joy, because writing at that level is always a joy to read. Despair, because reading Jo’s writing was like realising that moon I’d thought was so close I could touch it was on the other side of a window and a couple of hundred thousand kilometres away.

My post about writing inside a genre tradition sparked an excellent conversation on twitter about historical accuracy. (This is something historical writers love to talk about on twitter, I am coming to realise.) Jo made this one comment that set off lightbulbs. “If you’re going to describe Almack’s,” she said, “describe the moth on the window.”

In an attempt to discover all of her secrets, I asked her to elaborate on that thought.



One of the Really Hard Bits of writing historicals is that we can’t just go visit the past and see what it looks like.  There’s no bus tour to Regency London.  I can’t catch the next plane to Revolutionary Paris.

We want the sounds, the smells, the colors and the gritty reality of 1802 beneath our characters’ feet and under their hands. So what do we do?

— We visit what’s left.  The Marais quarter in Paris has survived the mischances and ‘improvements’ of centuries.  I can walk those stone streets and put my hand on walls three centuries old, everywhere.  This is what the Paris of 1789 looked like.

— We study art — always a good idea for its own sake, of course, but I’m talking about taking a magnifying glass to a Cruikshank print or a Hogarth painting.  (Oh how I wish they’d invented photography earlier than they did.)

— We gather in universal human experience.  I once had a character staring up at the sky, watching a meteor shower.  There are these great falls of meteors that come back every year.  The Leonids. The Perseids.  I’ve lain back on the hood of my car, rested my head on the windshield, and watched meteors draw white lines across the sky.  So I set my man in 1802 to do the same thing, minus the car hood of course.

I remember once, lighting a candle and seeing it reflected in the window glass, with my own self holding the light and night outside seeming to be all around me.  So I make my character do the same.   How many women have stood at how many other windows through the centuries.  Maybe somebody who’s reading my story remembers doing that same thing.

— And finally, of course, we cheat.

We make stuff up.  We guess.  We extrapolate — that’s a kinder word than cheating.  If I need a public house on a square in the city of London, I don’t wait for history to spawn me a pub.  I invent the square.  I create the tavern, with its long benches and scarred tables.  I select a view to see from the window.  I decide how their beer tastes.

(After a while, the pub and that square, or the parlor of a townhouse, or a cottage in the countryside take on a life of their own.  Now I’d find it hard to change them.  Weird.)

When you first become a writer, they issue you a laminated card that says, ‘Literary Permit, Licensed To Make Things Up.’  That’s this Literary License you hear about.

The fine print on the back goes into detail about ‘shall hold harmless’ and ‘may cause damage in an academic setting’ and ‘not for use as a flotation device’.  But basically this gives writers a Get Out Of Jail Card when it comes to telling tales.

Our fictional world is more than period literature and pictures.  More than the remnants left behind by time and the life we share with everyman and everywoman. Some of the world we create is fetched back from the nevernever.  It’s spun from whole cloth.

It’s pure fiction.

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Comments 11 Responses

  1. Ruthie

    Lovely post! This is true, of course, of all fiction. Even writing contemporary romance, there’s always this feeling of getting away with something. “When will they realise I’ve made it all up?”

    Finding those moments rarely described moments of universal human experience is my favorite part. Sadly, you can’t force them. You just have to wait for them to arrive. (On the plus side, they do tend to say, “Put me in a book.”)

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I love that you pointed this out. So true! I guess writing fiction we are pulled between wanting to record in beautiful/wise/funny/tragic/mundane detail how actual life is lived (somehow live it a second time over with much more narrative traction?) and wanting to go off into flights of fancy. I’m somehow taken aback at the kind of emotional intelligence that is required in writing.

  2. Merrian

    All I ask from historical fiction is that the everything hangs together as a whole – that I believe in the world and how it informs the characters. I don’t need research info dumps or footnotes but also can’t bear modern sensibilities and language pasted onto a series of Regency fashion plates and nodding to Georgette Heyer. I also think that contemporaries are written in ‘worlds’ and often authors fail at making the context of their characters lives believable and it is Jo’s examples above that show the way to making something wonderful that touches a reader and makes sense or anchors the place and time that the story is unfolding in.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      The “modern sensibilities” thing is tricky. I’m pretty sure some people are going to feel my novel is too “modern” feeling. For me, I need a sense of the characters right here and now existing in their most modern possible version of the world. I’m happy to sacrifice a bit of historical accuracy to get that sense across to readers. On the other hand…being modern in their time is a different matter to being modern in our time. I’m always striving to find the woman who challenged her world the best she could with what she could consciously know of its boundaries, and men who did the same.

      I loved Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in Hysteria for exactly this reason. She wasn’t some idea of the “constrained” woman in Victorian England. She was a confident, passionate woman making the most of her world. It reminds me of talking to people who lived in Eastern Germany before the wall came down. They didn’t live oppressed by the sense of all they didn’t have and being under constant surveillance etc. They were just living their lives, in a familiar world, with familiar restrictions. Much as we will one day be able to see much more clearly the restrictions we live with now but don’t notice or can’t see.

      So where modern sensibilities trip me up (or at least where they annoy me – it’s too ubiquitous to be truly distracting) is when heroines possess a consciousness of their world it would have been impossible to have at the time. Especially when it gives them a “false” sense of being restricted.

      1. Kaetrin

        It’s a difficult line that authors have to tread in historicals. Too realistic and there’s poor hygiene and a high infant mortality – none of which are particularly romantic. So the author has to combine modern sensibility into historical mix. I don’t envy the job of an author sometimes 🙂

  3. deniz

    I think this is why I enjoy reading and writing historicals so much – I love that feeling of ‘the people are the same but the surroundings are different’, and exploring cities and surroundings that are generally forgotten today.

  4. Pingback: another not so so-so sunday | diary of a(n accidental) housewife

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