“The small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story…”

John Crowley, the author I blogged about last month, has written an excellent essay for the Powell’s Books website on doing historical research for his new novel, Four Freedoms. Here’s an excerpt:

How much did a condom cost in 1944? What did the package look like? Where could one be bought? Were there machines in the toilets (we called them toilets) of bars, as there were in the late 1950s? I was writing a novel about the U.S. home front in World War II (Four Freedoms, just out), and I needed to know. Why not just skip the detail, and say, “He bought a condom” or “He produced a condom”? Because the small details of common life give actuality, aliveness, and thickness to a historical story in the same way they do to a present-day story. The difference is you have to go find the details of the past; you can’t just draw on experience.

The writers of historical fictions, just like real historians, do (or ought to do) a huge amount of research before beginning on their works, and then continue doing research until the very end. They are, however, often looking for different stuff. The reasons for things, the reasons that people believed they had for acting as they did, the forces pressing on them that they dimly grasped or didn’t, a chronology that puts cause before effect — that (I imagine) is what the historian spends her research time looking for. Except when tiny details of action matter very much (at exactly what hour was that telegram sent?), the minutiae of dress and dinner, how a character spent his morning or evening, the maker of her gown and how much it cost, aren’t the goal. The fiction researcher’s work is the opposite, or mirror image (as historical fiction is the mirror of history — the same stuff but not). What the fiction researcher wants is masses of actual detail, whether pertaining to his characters (if his characters are historical) or to others like them. He cares less what everybody did, or what masses of people did, than about what was possible to do. He cares less about what an actual person did than what any person could have done: could someone like the one I am imagining have thought this thought, owned this gun, remembered this event, worn this hat? He needs the stuff to help him make a world of the past that is as believable as one made out of the present.

Of course, writers of fiction can be more or less conscientious about their research. (Though, they can’t be exposed as frauds if they get the details, or even the big picture, wrong; they start out as frauds.) Some care a lot, others less; Walter Scott, who in a sense invented the historical novel, often footnoted his stories, to back up his inventions with evidence. Fiction writers can always claim that detailed research is unnecessary or peripheral to their work — but they can no longer claim that it’s too hard. I don’t know if the Internet in all its glory and some of its shame has changed things utterly for professional historians — if it has, they may not be telling — but it has made research for a writer of historical fiction a piece of cake: that sweet, that delightful, that filling.

And it’s not only Google and Project Gutenberg and JSTOR. I used those tools almost every day, following leads from place to place and having strange adventures with collectors, memoirists, visionaries, merchants, and obsessives (try writing anything about old cars, railroads, airplanes, World War II, or comic books, without turning them up). But I also had the help of the readers of my blog (John Crowley Little and Big on Live Journal), who are an inordinately smart bunch, I think, and ready to go look things up and bring them in. We’ve had some wonderful interchanges — like the time I needed to know how much a condom cost in 1944…

The great danger in all historical research, for the lover of trivia and oddity, is distraction; it’s one of the rewards, too….

You can read the whole essay, titled “The Accu-Thump of Googletarity,” here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s