The Impossible Task of Writing Historical Fiction
The study of history is tricky, not least for that fact that its two primary difficulties are antithetical: both too much and too little information. Starting with the latter, there is plenty we simply do not know. When I’m not writing, I work in a museum archive handling research requests and I can tell you that half the time what people are looking for simply does not exist, though they spend years searching. Records burn, get tossed or, more often, were not kept in the first place. Journals kept in the past were, of course, written by literate people with the leisure for self-contemplation. In the 1850s, in the early days of photography, guess what the rich people who could afford it weren’t taking pictures of: busy streets, servants, factories, markets, fairs, jails, hospitals, churches, farms and businesses. Can you guess what they were taking pictures of? Themselves. With that, our idea of the past tends to be generalized and sanitized into the lofty and romantic doings of the upper-classes: all balls, inheritances, and female propriety befitting a BBC drama. And even the working class people we do get in these shows still inhabit that world, just on the outskirts. Who wants to watch a show featuring an illiterate, drunk syphilitic who works fifteen hours a day in a rope factory?
The second problem occurs the other half of the time: too much information. If what you’re looking for isn’t very specific, you will quickly become buried in a mind-numbing amount of information. But to get the specifics, you need to engage the beast, but you can’t, because you don’t have specifics.