‘You can’t change the date of the Battle of Waterloo’
Writing Historical Non-Fiction with Christine Bramble
Some years ago I attended a workshop on Creative Non-Fiction. When I mentioned this to a friend who, like me, was working on a biography, she looked puzzled. How can nonfiction be creative? Doesn’t “creative” imply “imaginative” and therefore not factual? The friend who, also like me, sometimes struggles with the fact that citing references is actually more time consuming than the writing itself, commented tongue-in-cheek that her project would be so much easier if she could occasionally just make it up!
Put at its simplest creative nonfiction is a good story well told – generally about people and events so not a genre that suits a thesis on a technical subject. It uses the same literary techniques as writing fiction, eg, lyrical style, arranging a story other than chronologically, highlighting the dramatic or the amusing. But it must always be factually accurate and its characters and places must be real.
The authenticity of the story is paramount. Writing the story of a family member might be your first foray into nonfiction after years of writing poetry or short stories. You want the family at the very least and possibly others to enjoy reading your efforts so aim at making your work a piece of creative nonfiction rather than a list of events and dates. Perhaps you have started with some family papers that have been gathering dust in someone’s garage since a great grandparent died – letters, certificates, photographs, even shopping lists. Yes, such apparently inconsequential bits of paper may get saved by accident but hint at what people were buying a hundred years ago. You can then supplement these with research on the individual from official sources such as Births, Deaths and Marriages. Don’t take what is in front of you for granted. A caption on the reverse of a photograph could have been added later by someone who wasn’t on the scene – here it’s useful to identify samples of handwriting from family members, although this can be tricky – the teaching of handwriting in the past could produce a class of students with very similar styles. I have come across this in my own research and sometimes have difficulty distinguishing one sibling from another.
Even official documents may not reflect the truth. I came across this in researching the story of Matron Ida Greaves. Her application form to join the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve 1916 (pictured, and thank goodness it gets abbreviated to QA) gave her date of birth as 1878. I knew this wasn’t right. Sure enough, I confirmed that her birth was registered in February 1875 and baptismal records showed that she was baptised in March 1875. The “mistake” in the application form was almost certainly deliberate as she would otherwise have been too old to join. But I cannot say for certain – the previous sentence is a supposition, not a fact. So if you have a theory but no proof, you need to say so. You also need to research the context – the time and place that the documents were created. What were the important local, national and global events of the time? How did people eat, dress, travel, work, learn? Library and museum collections are great resources to get a feel for these things – local libraries has online material from the region, Newcastle Historical Collections and Lake Macquarie Libraries to name just two. The Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK is great for a sense of the global picture.
What about the relationship between the historical novel you might be working on and historical fact? In some ways this is a tricky one – you have the liberty to create your own imaginary characters and places but the best historical fiction is deeply researched in the facts and the background and just like writing your family history, this takes time if you want to create a really credible world for your characters. One reason I love reading Winston Graham’s Poldark series is that the world he creates has indeed been deeply researched to create credibility. I have often been heard to say in connection with historical novels, ‘You can’t change the date of the Battle of Waterloo’, ie something so very easy to check. Next time I’ll talk a bit more about this and about planning your historical nonfiction.
Christine has been a teacher of History, a museum education officer and a cultural planner. She assists Lake Macquarie libraries with the planning of the History Illuminated Festival each year during History Week – September.