Research: Fact and fancy in historical fiction
After reading A Gift for the Sultan and my latest novel, Rabble! , friend and fellow novelist Peter de Lissovoy (links below) wrote me:
“I hate to think of all the research you did. But it must have been a joy at times, as you made discoveries, it must have been, given the joy and life in the writing. You have to have had a basic rapport with the story and subject matter out front obviously though. The thought of “research” makes my blood run cold. But I respect the process. … ”
Yes, Pete, a lot of research went into both novels. On research: This is something that Dirk and Margaret [other fellow novelists; links to their work below] and I have in common : we enjoy the research. It’s our only way to travel in our imaginations to distant times and places, such as Constantinople in 1402 or Paris 1870-71. Or, for Dirk, San José in the 1930s and ’40s, or, for Margaret, the ancient American southwest.
For Rabble! — set in Paris in 1870-71 — the research got down to how milk was delivered, the street songs, the presence and performances of the bateleur and the strong man, the face burns from firing those rifles, the celebrations and massacres. The main characters experiencing those things are invented, but they are all drawn from what we know about real workers, journalists, police, school teachers, soldiers, rag pickers, et alii. in that time and place.
For A Gift for the Sultan, set in what is now Turkey in 1402, I had the invaluable aid of a Turkish literature-lover and commentator, Lale Eskicioğlu (see link to her website below) whom I met when she answered some question I posed on an internet site for Turkish historians. She advised me on many details of custom and naming, and it was through her and her friends that I was invited to do a reading from the novel in Istanbul, which led to its translation and publication in Turkish: Bir cihan, iki sultan (“One world, two sultans”). We’re still in touch, and she and the translator, Orhan Tuncay, and others we met in Turkey have become good friends.
Research for the Paris novel was in some ways easier: much closer to us in time, and in a language I can read. And before covid, Susana and I loved visiting Paris, very accessible for us from Spain, where I could visit the sites and museums relevant to my project, and also just enjoy that wonderful city. But the abundance of available material made it seem almost overwhelming. I was well along in the novel when I discovered another confederate, also a woman, a mathematician and novelist who is passionate about the Paris Commune and keeps a very active blog with articles about it. She, Michèle Audin (see below), encouraged and corrected me on many details.
No doubt my attention to research has a lot to do with my being a sociologist. Or maybe I became a sociologist because, like Karla Huebner’s young protagonist in her novel-in-progress, I’ve always wanted to be a “spy,” to find out things, how things and especially social situations work.
In “Sultan,” I was struck by the parallel between that early siege of Constantinople (1402) and the much more recent siege of Sarajevo, with the parties reversed: in Constantinople, intolerant nominally Muslim forces seeking to destroy a cosmopolitan Christian Orthodox city; in Sarajevo, intolerant, nominally Christian Orthodox hordes seeking to destroy their country’s most cosmopolitan, and mostly Muslim, city. In both cases, the opposing cultures had a long history of co-existence and collaboration and knew each other well, before the fury. How then will they deal with one another, face to face, when they are not actually fighting? How would a Muslim war-chief behave with an attractive and seemingly defenseless Christian girl entrusted to his care? And how would she react?
In Rabble!, I started out wanting to know why bookbinders were so active in the revolution of the Paris Commune. As a sociologist (I used to teach labor studies), I knew that the conditions of work, the routines and physical actions required and the kinds of associations of different trades shape a person’s entire outlook. What about bookbinding could make Eugène Varlin — chief of the Paris section of the International — become so involved in organizing both women and men workers to fight for their rights? I was also curious about the bronze smiths, another exceptionally active contingent in the Commune, and I discovered a bronze foundry in the 1870s very close to Belleville, a hotbed of radicalism. And what were the grievances of the laundresses, clothes-pressers, textile workers and other women workers that got them so active in political meetings, demonstrations and, ultimately, at the barricades? I wrote the book to imagine these things and find some likely answers.
I know that some authors, maybe even I at times, can write wonderful stories without further research beyond their memories and imaginations. Jan Alexander’s wild imagination lets her go far beyond her lived experience in her novels. “On a page from Rilke” is an example from my work. Also, most or all the stories in my collection Welcome to My Contri : I’d lived in or close to the situations I described, and my memories and imagination were all I needed. The most horrible, frightening story in the collection, “Incident on Mother’s Day,” is based closely on a long, frightening conversation I had had with a real Central American terrorist, combined with a then-recent news article on an atrocity in Nicaragua. No further research needed. But for Constantinople 1402, or Paris 1870-71, I couldn’t rely only on my memories. —
Pete de Lissovoy goes on to say, “For any of you who have not read Geoff’s wild novel A Gift for the Sultan, that is a great read about the sieges of Constantinople and Timur from the steppes. … Life inside a besieged medieval Christian city and the adventures of the invaders was not something I would have come up with to read on my own but I remember how much I enjoyed and was impressed with reading that novel “Sultan.” I’m going to have to read it again.”
Writer associates (and good friends) mentioned in this blog entry:
Peter de Lissovoy, books
Dirk van Nouhuys