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History and Fiction

Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories

Gillian Polack

Shortlisted for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review

Fiction plays a vital role in describing history and transmitting culture. How writers understand and use history can play an equally important role in how they navigate a novel. This book explores the nature of the author’s relationship with history and fiction – often using writers’ own words – as well as the role history plays in fiction.
Focusing on genre fiction, this study considers key issues in the relationship between history and fiction, such as how writers contextualise the history they use in their fiction and how they incorporate historical research. The book also addresses the related topic of world building using history, discussing the connections between the science fiction writers’ notion of world building and the scholarly understanding of story space and explaining the mechanics of constructing the world of the novel. This book places the writing of fiction into a wider framework of history and writing and encourages dialogue between writers and historians.

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Chapter 7: How research affects the novel


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How research affects the novel

World building is not a simple matter. One reason that writers’ processes are complex and fluid is because the material they translate into narrative is complex. Moreover, any work of fiction claiming precision in its history has to work through a series of issues, from the nature of its sources through to what kind of assumptions it makes concerning the nature or specifics of a historical period. Authors must contend with modern views of particular periods, which sometimes have led to a wholly inaccurate depiction, as is often the case with contemporary fictional depictions of the Middle Ages. A classic example of this is T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, whose interpretation of the early Middle Ages, although clearly using whimsy and allegory and fantasy rather than Early Medieval history, has deeply influenced modern narratives concerning that period.

In a way, history plays the same role as a character or set of characters in a novel, and research is essential when that character is central and less essential the more peripheral the history becomes. In the case of Peter Dickinson’s Merlin in The Weathermonger (1968), the role of the historical/literary Merlin was so unimportant that serious research would have actually undermined the novel. Dickinson explains: ‘I didn’t do any research at all. I relied vaguely on my memory of Arthurian stories’ and ‘I wanted Merlin rather vague, but marked by symbols of power’...

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