On Developing And Researching A Novel, by Alison Booth
The way I write is to focus initially on the characters, their respective plots and the landscape in which I want to visualise them (and it has to be one I love). Then I choose to set the action in a time period that will best serve the interests of the plot. That way of working might not suit you. Instead you might fall in love with a historical period and construct a great plot to fit in with it.
Here’s an example of the connection between plot and time (I’ve taken this from my first novel). Suppose one of your characters is threatened by a child abuse scandal. Will you choose a period when child abuse is not explicitly at the foreground of social consciousness? Or will you set the story in more recent times, when child abuse is something of which everyone is aware? Whatever decision you make will have implications for your plot, so it’s important to think carefully about this early on.
Here’s a second example. Suppose another of your characters is an immigrant. Making a choice about what period to set the story is relatively easy, since Australia has had waves of immigrants ever since 1788. So you can take your pick from what you know and what you feel comfortable with. Perhaps the plotting will require you to have an Afghan immigrant or asylum seeker, or an immigrant from the wave of immigrants from the early 1950s onwards. These are issues to be decided before you begin writing, or at least before you get too far into the novel.
What is my point? Simply that the plot imposes constraints on what time period you choose for your narrative. This will determine how much research, historical and otherwise, you need to carry out.
A second point is that the novel you write doesn’t need to be representative of the times in which it’s situated. You’re not writing a history book, you’re writing a novel about characters with their own peculiarities, perhaps set in unusual locations doing unusual things and maybe facing atypical events. So while historical accuracy matters, this doesn’t apply to characterisation.
My three novels were set in 1957, 1961 and 1971. So I needed to be careful about historical accuracy as well as carry out the usual research that a novelist has to do. Once I’d made the decision about the plot, the characters and the time period, I read eclectically and that was a lot of fun. My goal was to pick up an overall impression as well as particular details. I printed material, photocopied relevant pages of books and kept my research in a file to refer to later. I also went to the National Library basement and spooled through microfiches to see newspapers of the time to get details of the politics in Australia, the world events that were affecting people in Australia, the advertisements, pictures of what people were wearing, and so on.
When your novel is being copy edited, the editor will pick up some mistakes but you can’t expect him or her to pick up historical inaccuracies. So far I’ve only had two letters from readers about historical aspects of my novels. The first was a charming letter from a test pilot in World War 2, who pointed out that I had a detail about a Bristol Beaufighter aircraft that was wrong. Fortunately he wrote to me just a few months after publication, immediately before the first reprint was about to be run, so this was corrected. The second letter about historical aspects was from a reader who had been a boy in Latvia in the Second World War. He wrote movingly about his experiences (which would provide fantastic material for a different novel) and it was lovely to hear from him. As I’d read and gathered a lot of material about the topic, his letter didn’t affect my novels but it did raise the issue of whether characters should be representative – that is, based on averages – or not.
For my work as an economist I’m all in favour of being representative and focusing on averages. Yet writers of novels can choose the atypical. As a writer you can pick up the glorious peculiarities of individual human beings. This is one of the aspects of writing about characters that provides the novelist with so much fun. You never know who you are going to meet along the way.
Alison Booth’s author website: www.alisonbooth.net
Writing Novels in Australia