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On Memory and Fiction: Part 11

(Read Part 10 here.)

Laurie King is the bestselling and amazingly prolific author of more than an 18 books, and she has kept me reading late into the night time and time again. She currently writes both stand-alones and series — including the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series that takes place in the early 20th century. Her most recent novel, Touchstone is set in 1926 England, during the weeks leading up to the turmoil of the General Strike.

MJR: Laurie, how do you do your research? How do you find your way into the past?

King: I write mostly in the '20s, although I am contemplating a project that will stretch through the '30s, so most of my research is either the written word or photographic, with some film. What I read depends on what I'm writing — biographies for the prominent people and themes of the time, collected letters and diaries for the flavor and individual concerns. Autobiographies can be tricky, because the details tend to be smoothed over by the retelling, and if details are the lifeblood of fiction, they are both the blood and the heart of crime fiction, which functions on specifics, not themes.

The point of historical fiction is not that it is a past one cannot have lived, but a past that one could have lived, given a minor chronological difference in the circumstances of one's birth. "The past is another country; they do things differently" is true, but only on the surface. We read a historical novel not because everything in it is so foreign, but because "they" who live the story are so familiar to us.

This has no more to do with the collective unconscious than any other kind of novel, since the collective unconscious is concerned with archetypes rather than memory. And drawing from what I suppose could be called collective memory is a dangerous temptation when writing historicals, because of the hazards of anachronism.

The trick in writing a story set in the past lies in capturing the flavor of the time, whether it be ancient Rome or Paris in the '20s, without getting bogged down in distractions. If my historical novel reads like a collection of 3x5 note cards, I may have written a remarkably accurate depiction of society and technology, but as a novel, it's a failure. If it presents people I know, all their quirks and passions and interests, only sharply outlined by their very different circumstances, then I've succeeded.

÷ ÷ ÷

Visit M. J. Rose at her website (www.mjrose.com) or read her daily blog (www.reincarnationist.org) on reincarnation facts, philosophy, and curiosities. Her most recent novel, The Memorist, is an Indie Next pick.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Memorist
    Used Hardcover $2.75
  2. Touchstone Used Hardcover $9.50

M. J. Rose is the author of The Memorist

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