ORGANIZING INFORMATION TO WRITE HISTORY
Writing a complex historical novel depends on information and organization. All that early research found itself cross-referenced in files on “History,” “Art,” and “Characters.” Then there were smaller, separate files on such specifics as 'Treaties,' ‘Allegory’ and ‘Tombs.’ For this kind of project, a timeline is invaluable to show me the context in which events take place. I made three columns: Anne’s life, French and European history, and broader scientific and cultural happenings. As I go along, I add more details and am able to cross-reference. After a lot of frustration trying to straighten out the history to my satisfaction, I had to start another file about treaties. The two-part bibliography kept growing: long lists of sources I wanted to consult; then as I did, they would be shifted to the formal bibliography. It was real progress when I could develop a long narrative that I simply called “Anne of Brittany”—rough information, often including the opposing or unclear information that I had amassed, and then arranged mostly chronologically, sometimes by subject. With that as my foundation, I was able to see who the key characters were at each stage of her life, and who would be in the best position to talk about it. In some cases, I wanted to show the conflict, so decided that some incidents would be discussed more than once, from different points of view. I shudder when I think of the 3 x 5 cards I used when I was in college! It is so useful and simple to use the Table of Contents and search functions within my own documents and notes, whether to find a fact, check a reference, or cross-reference a character or event After all, as of this writing, I have over 60 pages of historical facts; 45 pages of material about characters; and 24 pages of notes on specific subjects.
Historical fiction provides the human quality that is sometimes, or often, lacking in academic history. I was bored by history as it was taught when I was in school--it was almost always battles and lists of rulers. Not until I got older and started reading more broadly could I appreciate and start to understand history as it shapes contemporary life and issues.
And historical fiction sets people--sometimes real, sometimes seemingly real--in a setting that should provide a meaningful picture of life at a certain point or time or geographic place in history. And the writer can take liberties...not necessarily of fact, but by leaping from place to place, person to person, or situation to situation that tell more than a strict narrative would.
I've just experienced two good, different, examples of the values and varieties of historical fiction. I read "Heyday" by Kurt Anderson, who followed a few characters from France, to England, and across the United States to the California Gold Rush, all taking place in 1848. He managed to portray a wonderful picture of the time, including glimpses of real people and situations. And in a talk by Umberto Eco at the New York Public Library, he explained that in his recent book "The Prague Cemetery" everyone was a real person except his protagonist.
In my own Work in Progress I never change an established fact, but have added fictional characters to comment and question; something that I think is important in history and in novels.