Broccoli: It’s Good For You!

Is it possible to learn about history through fiction? Or should historical facts only be acquired via proper, serious non-fiction books which have footnotes and sepia photographs and extensive bibliographies? Christchurch City Libraries Blog has a thoughtful post about the issue, inspired partly by The FitzOsbornes in Exile. The blogger notes that I have sneakily inserted quite a few historical facts into the novel:

Broccoli
Broccoli! It's good for you! Even though it isn't quite as delicious as chocolate!
“A bit like parents who sneak broccoli into chocolate cake, the Montmaray books are full of historical detail, actual real stuff that happened. I am learning, not only about things like the War of the Stray Dog, but also the Spanish Civil War, British court etiquette, and the often murky political allegiances of upper-class English people between the wars.”

This is all quite true. I confess. I love broccoli, in both its literal and metaphorical forms. The FitzOsbornes in Exile is stuffed so full of broccoli that it’s only thanks to my wonderful editors that the whole thing doesn’t taste and look exactly like vegetable terrine. I’m struggling through the same issue at the moment, as I edit The FitzOsbornes at War, the final Montmaray novel. It is a very, very long manuscript, which I’d like to make a bit shorter, and it would be logical to remove some of the information about wartime events outside England. The problem is that I find all that background information absolutely fascinating. I have to keep reminding myself that I am not writing a textbook about the Second World War, but a story, and that if the factual information does not have a direct bearing on my fictional characters, then it doesn’t belong in the novel. It doesn’t matter if I spent an entire fortnight researching a particular event – if those historical facts can’t be blended in smoothly, they have no place in my chocolate cake (admittedly, a cake made of very bittersweet, dark chocolate). As New Zealand author Rachael King points out,

“When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research. If you are, I’ve failed in my job.”

And apparently she knows how to skin a tiger, so I think we should all pay careful attention to what she has to say.

4 thoughts on “Broccoli: It’s Good For You!”

  1. On the one hand, I always wonder where the history ends and the fiction begins, and whether I’m believing the wrong parts to have happened or not. On the other hand, something I’ve read about in fiction is more likely to capture my attention in nonfiction, and I’ll say, “I’ve READ that! I REMEMBER that part! Oh my gosh I can’t believe it actually HAPPENED like that! YAY!” so that makes you end up loving the straight-up learning all the more.

    But then I am a nerd and find history fascinating anyway, so I’m not sure what it’s like for the average reader.

    1. That’s why I think author notes, pointing out what’s true and what’s not, are really important for historical novels. And I agree with you, I’m more likely to remember facts if they’re part of a story – either a fictional story, or a biography, or some sort of non-fiction told in the form of a narrative.

      And I’m a nerd, too. We’re all a bit nerdy at this blog.

  2. A very wise editor said to me that when an author is clearly jamming Too Much In, it’s a matter of assessing what really needs to happen in that particular scene or chapter – what the point of it is. (Only I think she put it better than that.)

    On the matter of vegetables and chocolate cake: it’s possible to make a really delicious chocolate cake with zucchini as a key ingredient. It’s true! And great for dealing with zucchini gluts from the garden. But I still end up throwing out a few zucchini, the ones that have turned into truncheon-sized marrows. I guess it’s the same with research.

    1. In one of Michael Legat’s writing books, he quotes Diane Pearson: “Research is like manure – a little here and there makes everything blossom and grow, but in large lumps it is horrid.”

      I think your editor put it a little more elegantly, Claire!

      And yes, zucchini seems a more plausible ingredient in cakes than broccoli! A zucchini and carrot cake might be nice . . . And now I am feeling quite hungry.

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