When writer Annemarie Neary set out to write her novel A Parachute in the Lime Tree, she was entering the world of historical fiction. Luckily for us, she talks about the experience to writing.ie in an article called Recreating the Past & Taking your Readers With You. She starts by saying that there are three things you must remember:
- Absorb the facts, then liberate yourself from them. Your story must be plausible, but it need not be true.
- Know your period inside out, but don’t push your research at the reader ad nauseam. They want to forget that you’ve made it all up, so don’t keep dragging them back to Wikipedia.
- You may know next to nothing about sixteenth century Sweden, but human emotions were no different then than now, a daisy was still a daisy and milk turned sour.
When Annemarie started out on her novel, she need to to know a lot whole host of things: the Luftwaffe, Kindertransports, musical life in Dublin, the physical fabric of pre-war Berlin. She went for total immersion (at her lowest point she could have told you pretty much anything you wanted to know about a Heinkel He-111.) However, when she started to write, though, none of this immersion translated to the page. Annemarie came back to it a few years later, something strange had happened. The research seemed to have evened itself out, and all those insistent details clamouring for inclusion had piped down. This time, she wrote from the heart. She started with universals – jeopardy, betrayal, isolation, exile, hope, desire – the things that always feel the same and not worry about the barrier of time between her and her characters. When she needed to know something, she checked it. If the information would light up a scene, she’d used it. Everything else was thrown away.
Finally, Annemarie offers this tip:
“try to see things with a period eye. Don’t highlight things your character would take for granted as a means of shoehorning in your research. I was lucky to have Oskar capable of playing the role of the observant outsider. For him, everything about Ireland is odd, different. He notices the advertisements because he hasn’t a clue what Bovril is, or Bird’s, or why a trolley bus might have Gold Flake written on the side. Your characters are creatures of their time. Don’t give them your attitudes or the security of your vantage point. Remember that you stand in a privileged position because you know all about outcomes and have the benefit of moral hindsight. My characters don’t know who will win the war, if Ireland will be invaded and, if so, by whom. The tension between their ignorance and our knowledge is part of what differentiates historical fiction from other genres, at least some of the time.”
Annemarie Neary is an award-winning short story writer, former lawyer and the author of A Parachute in the Lime Tree, her first novel. Recreating the Past & Taking your Readers With You was first published on writing.ie in March 2012.