Salad is particularly tricky.
I once had a reader take me to task over a freaking tomato, so you overlook research at your peril, even one line in a 150,000 word book.
BUT you must also remember that you’re not an historian, you’re a novelist. My sister-in-law’s constant complaint – and she always has her nose in a book, God bless her cotton socks – is that some writers bombard her with too many facts. ‘I just want to get into the story,’ is her mantra. ‘I hate it when I have to start skipping pages.’
And here I think is a great and misunderstood truth: it’s not that you shouldn’t do the research, it’s that you should leave most of it out.
So she is my litmus test. When I give her my books to read I always say:
‘Did you have to skip?’
If she had to skip, I cut that bit out, no matter how interesting I think it is.
The other difficult thing about writing history is that it’s chaotic – like life.
Because it is life, only life that happened a while ago.
A novel is not chaotic, by its very definition. Neither is a movie. That’s why the makers of Braveheart, for instance, messed with history like they did. They were trying to make an epic and when the facts got in their way, they just ignored them.
Authors can’t do that. Film directors can play tennis with the net down. We can’t.
My latest novel, ‘East India’, was based on one of Australia’s most iconic stories, the wreck of the Dutch retourschip “Batavia”, which grounded on a reef fifty miles off the West Australian coast in 1629.
But this was no ordinary shipwreck. One of the senior VOC officers decided to turn the islands into a personal fiefdom, murdering all those who were of no use to him – such as the male passengers and the children – and forcing the women to become sex slaves. He was defied and thwarted by a small band of Company soldiers who built a fort out of limestone rocks and made their own weapons from flotsam and held them off until help arrived.
It’s a truly extraordinary tale – but it’s not a novel. There’s been many books written about the episode in Australia, and I’ve read most of them, but it’s deeply unsatisfying as a story. The main character turns out to be a bit of a coward. No one really tries to defend the women. The real hero only emerges on the last ten pages.
Sorry, doesn’t work.
So even though my novel was closely based on the Batavia story, I realised early on that I had to fictionalise it. I messed with the facts so much it became an original story but I had to make clear in my Afterword the source of the inspiration.
History was still a pain in the butt though, because there were some parts of the story that just begged to be retold and yet, like much of real life, they didn’t make sense. Could a seventeenth century skipper really navigate an open boat not much larger than a racing skiff across the open sea all the way to Indonesia?
Well yes he could – he did.
But there are other problems you can never get right. No matter what I do, I know someone will write me and say I’ve drawn too much from real history or missed something about a tomato.
The good news – there was no salad on seventeenth century VOC retourschips.
But for my litmus test I always go back to my sister-in-law. ‘What did you think?’
‘Couldn’t put it down.’
‘Great. Did you skip anything?’
‘Not a paragraph. I cried at the end.’
There you go. Great.
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