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This post is adapted from a guest post I wrote for The Writing Desk.
There are lots of different ways to write your way through history, but if you are working on fiction it can be tempting to throw caution to the wind and ditch historical accuracy in favour of a heap of artistic license so that your plot can move along in the way you want it to. Does it really matter if my femme fatale is wearing nylons pre-1940? Who cares if I shift the date of that war by a year or two so I don’t have to weave in details of a battle that will detract from the mystery? Readers do!
A little historical accuracy goes a long way when creating a believable story that feels authentic to its setting. Research is as important for fiction as it is for non-fiction. So, by now you might be wondering how I tackled the twenties in my own novel.
Let me start with a little confession. I didn’t intend to write a historical novel. I just sat down and started to write a story that intrigued me, featuring characters that appealed to me. I didn’t plan to set it in 1927, but that became my chosen year. The Doctor’s Daughter travels through Vienna, Budapest and London. Did I know that’s where it would take me when I started? Not at all!
I know that is not the way all writers approach their work, but I can only talk about my own journey from first paragraph through to final draft. I may not have started with much of a plan, but once I got going I most certainly wanted to ensure that I did everything I could to keep the reader in my historical world. One outdated slang word or use of a modern medicine and I knew I would pop the bubble and my readers would tumble right out of the pages.
What I lacked in the planning, I made up for in the writing, reading, redrafting and rereading later. For the locations, I spent hours researching the cities my characters passed through. I tried to ensure that any landmarks, important buildings and street names existed or were at least based on similar ones. It wouldn’t do at all to mention a library or a hotel that had been built in the last 50 years! The flora and fauna too, the food and even the dining habits of people at that time. All vital if I were to create authentic scenes.
As for the timing, I had to consider the literature, communication methods, education system, transport, clothing, social context and so much more. It would have been easy to ramble through a bunch of roaring twenties clichés, but my story is very much driven by character. Marta, Elise, Leopold and Arnold are living in the late 1920s, but they are also human beings affected by their experiences and bearing flaws that still resonate in people’s lives today. Whilst there is a sprinkling of speakeasy culture, The Doctor’s Daughter is no Gatsby. My characters are imaginings of real people with hopes and dreams, doubts and fears, highs and lows. They can be both warm and austere. They cry, they suffer, they hurt and get hurt, they have compulsions and dark secrets. They are the best of people and the worst of people.
It took almost as long to research as it did to write it, and I hope the reader’s experience will be richer for it. Book blogger reviews and reader reviews certainly seem to suggest that all of that research paid off as many have referred to how well researched The Doctor’s Daughter is, so that’s proof enough for me!