Writing historical fiction means merging two stories into one. The factual, what actually happened, and the story you want to tell the reader. Today’s guest, Hazel Gaynor, wrote a novel inspired by true events of the Titanic’s fateful crossing. She shares her insight on historical research and gives us tips on how to weave fact with fiction.
Wonderful to have you at RU, Hazel!
As a writer of historical fiction, I am often asked about research, not only regarding research for my own novels, but also the broader issue of historical accuracy, the tricky conundrum of balancing fact and fiction. How do successful historical novelists get this right? Is there an art to inter-weaving the real with the imagined; telling an engaging story while being faithful to the facts? In short, how do historical novelists know what they don’t know?
The job of the historical novelist is not only to write a compelling story with memorable characters and an engaging plot, we must also immerse ourselves so fully in the era we are writing about, in the locations and lives of the people who inhabit our novel, that it almost becomes instinct to know what would (and wouldn’t) have been worn, eaten, said or grown at the time. It is only through detailed research that historical novelists can ensure historical integrity; only then can they, as novelist Elizabeth Chadwick says, ‘build a bridge between the past and the present for readers to walk over.’
Of course, occasional mistakes will be made and somebody, somewhere, will gladly point out that the flowering plant you make a passing reference to in Chapter Fifteen couldn’t possibly have been in bloom at that time of year, in that location in the eighteenth century. (Darn it). When writing historical novels, it is very easy to feel crippled by ‘historical anxiety’. You visualise a line of academic historians who are waiting – just waiting – to trip you up (darn them). While it is important to be aware of such critics (real or imagined), it is far more important not to be stifled by them. As Philippa Gregory remarked in her opening address at the 2012 Historical Novel Society conference, ‘the archive is not history. To have history you have to have narrative. Fiction can tell the story that history cannot.’
When I started to write THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME, the prospect of tackling a subject as well-known and emotionally charged as Titanic was very daunting. I knew, first and foremost, that I had to get my facts straight – about the ship, about the events of that April night and about the era. But I also knew that I wanted to write a novel set around Titanic, not strictly about Titanic the ship. I was more intrigued by her passengers. I wanted to know what happened to survivors after they stepped into the lifeboats – what happened to them once they reached New York. I wanted to understand how friends and families heard about the disaster. Through my research, I was effectively looking for the historical ‘dark matter’ of this event; the less well-known, less visible, less well understood aspects of the tragedy.
For months, I read everything I could find about Titanic and her passengers. I explored the oral histories of the event: survivor accounts and newspaper reports from the time, of which there are a remarkable number. Titanic happened at a time when wireless radio and the global press allowed the event to be documented in an unprecedented level of detail. The accounts and reflections of Titanic’s passengers are recorded in astonishing detail in newspaper archives, in books such as Walter Lord’s ground-breaking account A Night to Remember and in comprehensive Titanic websites such as www.encyclopaedia-titanica.org. Writers like Senan Molony, author of The Irish Aboard Titanic, also provide a fascinating source of information for would-be ‘Titanoraks’ like myself. While some historical fiction writers may struggle to find source material about their subject, my problem was that there was so much.
And this is where restraint is necessary. It is tempting, after spending a substantial amount of your life finding things out, to throw every fascinating fact, every cleverly-unearthed piece of research into the novel. Yet, the real skill of the author, after doing their research, is to know what to leave out as well as what to put in. While we need to create authenticity through the sights, sounds, smells and events of the world our historical characters inhabit, we don’t want to go around with huge flashing arrows, pointing this out.
So, back to my research. With a particular interest in Titanic’s Irish passengers, I noticed the same survivor names kept coming up: three young girls who had travelled as part of a larger group and had survived with incredible stories to tell. One believed she took the last place in the last lifeboat after being assisted by a crew member. Another recounted how she’d jumped out of one lifeboat to return to her cabin to fetch the new hat she’d bought especially for her arrival in New York and how she then make a jump of fifteen feet to get into another lifeboat as it was being lowered. You really couldn’t make it up – and therein lies the joy of research; discovering those astounding factual truths which underpin your fictional interpretation.
After digging a little deeper into the background of these girls, I found my dark matter. I found the story of the Addergoole Fourteen (as the group has become known in recent years): a group of friends and relatives who left a small parish in rural Ireland and boarded Titanic at Queenstown in County Cork. I knew that this was the story I wanted to tell: the story of a Titanic survivor and a community left behind.
Armed with a small library of research notes, taken from the vast and varied Titanic archives – online, in print, in press, in photographs, in reports from the inquiries, in museums, in survivor memorabilia and relics taken from the wreck – my novel began to take shape. I relished the creative freedom the historical novel form provided, whilst being faithful to all I had discovered about Titanic and the events of that April night. As Hilary Mantel once said, ‘I will make up the content of a man’s heart, but never the colour of his wallpaper.’
Research is an intrinsic and fascinating part of historical fiction. What a pleasure it is to discover untold stories, unknown heroes and heroines and be able to weave an imagined story around them. What a privilege it is to shed light on that dark matter which surrounds so much of our past.
How do you begin researching a new novel and how do you organise your research notes? Do you research for a period of time and then write, or do you research as you write?
Are your stakes high enough? Find out when author and blogger Janice Hardy joins us on Tuesday, April 15th.
THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME: A Novel of the Titanic (William Morrow Trade Paperback; April 1, 2014; $14.99; ISBN: 9780062316868). Her story is inspired by true events surrounding the Addergoole 14—members of a church parish in County Mayo, Ireland that set sail together on RMS Titanic, all hoping to find a brighter future in America. It is believed that the losses suffered by the parish in the Titanic disaster were the largest proportionate loss of life from any locality.
Seventeen year old Maggie Murphy feels bittersweet about her journey across the Atlantic Ocean. While her future lies in an unknown new place, her heart remains in the country with Séamus, the sweetheart she is leaving behind. Maggie is one of the fortunate few passengers in steerage who survives on April 15th, 1912. Waking up alone in a New York hospital, she vows never to speak of the terror and panic of that night again. Weaving in and out of Maggie’s voyage and Chicago, 1982, Gaynor introduces the reader to twenty-one year old Grace Butler. When her Great Nana Maggie shares the painful secret she harbored for almost a lifetime about Titanic, the revelation gives Grace new direction—and leads her and Maggie to unexpected reunions with those thought to be lost long ago.
Gaynor’s poignant tale seamlessly blends fact and fiction, exploring the tragedy’s impact and its lasting repercussions on survivors and their descendants. With snippets of actual Marconigrams—telegrams sent through the Marconi Company between Titanic and Carpathia and between Carpathia and the White Star Line office—THE GIRL WHO CAME HOME is a story of enduring love and forgiveness, spanning seventy years, and a real source of fascination for history buffs and Titanic enthusiasts.
Bio: Hazel Gaynor is an exciting new voice in historical fiction. Her writing has been featured in the Sunday Times Magazine and Irish Times, and she was the recipient of the 2012 Cecil Day Lewis award for Emerging Writers. Originally from North Yorkshire, England, Hazel now lives in Ireland with her husband, and two young children. For more information, please visit her website or follow her on twitter.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule April 14-18
- Lesann Berry presents: Embrace the Pain of Research
- Researching Historical Fiction: Make it Fun by Jessica James
- When Internet Research Fails—Talking to Real People
- Doing Research in the 21st Century: How Online Sources are Transforming the Way I Research My Books – by Jennifer Robson