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:
“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.