GUEST BLOG: The invention of tissues
4th July 2012 - Sara Sheridan
As a historical novelist, covering the late Georgian and early Victorian eras and, most recently, the 1950s, Sara Sheridan knows about the importance of historical accuracy; readers can be very unforgiving of any apocryphal details. She tells about about how she goes about getting her facts right, from delving into dusty archives to pestering the elderly.
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I envy contemporary novelists sometimes! The amount of research required to write historical fiction is daunting though I have to say, it's one of my favourite things about my job. I've always been a huge swot - I love archives, libraries and museums though inspiration for background detail in an historical novel is as likely to come from wandering about and seeing buildings from the period or noticing the details of how streets have developed over the years. I particularly love backstreets and alleyways where there tends to be less development. I also have an eagle eye for details in old movies (for the 20th century only) - you can pick up the kind of cars on the streets and how people wore their hair or if a couple were likely to hold hands in public.
I'm keenly aware of how important it is to get the details right. My father was an antique dealer and I'm ridiculously well educated about silverware. When I was a kid Dad used to take me to auctions and on buying calls with other dealers. As a result I can date a decanter to within 20 years and have strong views on the quality of various makers. There was a BBC production of a Jane Austen book that was entirely spoiled for me because the silverware was out of period - it was Victorian and that jeopardised my enjoyment of the whole story. It's crazy but that's how the imagination works - if you see one thing that's wrong, you smell a rat and the fictional spell that's cast is broken.
For an historical novelist it's a minefield. Even the background details need to be right and it's funny how often people come back and ask questions or occasionally, tell you that you've got the details wrong (sometimes the questioner is wrong, actually though other times, because writers are human, I've missed something.). I've had anguished emails, tweets and Facebook comments about the date of the invention of the tissue, which coins were in circulation in the 1950s, whether certain vehicles ran on petrol or diesel and a particularly annoying online review for my first historical novel, The Secret Mandarin, about how it would be impossible for a white man to enter China disguised in Chinese clothes and how this part of my plot was completely unbelievable. Hilariously, of course, this part of the plot was absolutely true.
My favourite part of researching though is generally archive based. There are so many stories that have been lost. We are very lucky in the UK - we have some amazing archive material and I often find myself moved to tears following the story of completely unknown and often extraordinarily brave individuals as they appear fleetingly in records. Many of the minor characters in my books are based on these stories - often military men, conscripted very young.
I write about the late Georgian and early Victorian era when the records of most people's lives were sketchy - birth, marriage and death certificates were only beginning to be standarised and held centrally - the first census was 1821 (and its records are nowhere near complete). The gaps are enticing though - ideal in some ways for a novelist. I also write about the 1950s in my Mirabelle Bevan Mysteries and the kind of research I undertake for that is different - not least because there are so many people around who were alive in the 1950s. I pester old people - I admit it! I also love looking at old photographs and video footage (neither of which are available when I'm writing about the earlier period).
For me, historical material is treasure trove and whether I'm looking at artefacts in a museum or reading letters and diaries in an archive or simply having a chat with my old history teacher, my upstairs neighbour or my father (all fonts of information about the 1950s) it helps me build a clearer picture of what life was like and effectively, where our society came from. That's what brings history to life for me and that's my interest in it. None of us would be here if we hadn't come from somewhere, and that somewhere is the past.
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Sara Sheridan; Margaret Chamberlain