Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Ian. D. Roberts: In search of something old that's new

ID Roberts has been a wonderful supporter of the HNSA conference. Even though he is on the other side of the world, he donated to the Pozible campaign and then offered the prize of one free day ticket to another lucky attendee. To acknowledge his support, we're publishing a great post where he explores how historical research can be blended seamlessly to produce historical fiction.

I.D. Roberts was born in Ivanhoe near Melbourne, Australia in 1970 and moved to England when he was three. From a young age he developed an obsession with war comics, movies, Tintin and James Bond.

At various stages in his life he has worked as a filmmaker, an industrial temp, a cinema box-office cashier, a runner, a caretaker, a football correspondent, a police line-up volunteer, a cricket commentator, a soundtrack reviewer, and a sub-editor. For the past decade he has been the film writer for the TV Times magazine. In 2012 he was signed by a literary agent.

He holds a BA in Film from the University of Westminster and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. 

His debut novel, KINGDOM LOCK, an action-adventure set during the First World War, was published in May 2014 by Allison & Busby.

The second Kingdom Lock adventure is done, and he recently completed an adaptation of his grandmother's memoirs. It tells of her time as a trainee nurse during the Blitz, and is due to be published by Little Brown (Sphere) in August 2015. 

He lives in rural Somerset with his wife Di and their dog, Steed.

 In search of something old that’s new

One of the questions I find myself being asked the most by readers, when I meet them, is about research. How much do I do? How did I find a particular thing out? And did it take me a long time?
And its not just the readers, either, who ask those questions. My fellow writers and I often talk and discuss the merits and disadvantages of research, of how much is too much, of getting bogged down in fascinating details, and of actually forgetting to get on with the actual writing of our stories. But the one thing that we all agree on, is that research can be pretty addictive, particularly when you have uncovered, or been shown or told about, some new piece of fact related to your chosen era. 

So, just how much is too much when it comes to research?

If the truth be told, you can keep working on something over and over, always improving, always tinkering, always adding something else to enhance the whole. There is so much information out there nowadays and there are always more books, more essays, more photos, letters, memoirs, maps, films to study. And let’s not forget the reference libraries to visit, the historical sites to discover, the cities to travel around, the battlefields to walk, and the people to read about and to talk to. Research really never ends. It is an integral part to all writing, and, I would say, the life blood of historical fiction in particular. 

But certain authors will use their research in different ways.
For example, in Historical Fiction, a literary author may go into huge, intricate detail about, say, a tablecloth. Whereas, for a commercial writer like myself, that kind of detail would be far too intricate and distracting, and would best be mentioned in a line, if at all. However, but both types of author could easily embark on the same amount of research. For authenticity, I may want to check that the tablecloth was made of cotton, was white, and decorated with colour, hand-stitched wild flowers. Whereas the literary author may wish to delve into the history of the tablecloth itself, writing about its weave, its construction, how the cotton was harvested in the first place, how it was bleached or how the seamstress lost her eyesight while sewing on the intricate flowers. Going off on tangents for page after page after page. 

Both are just as valid, they are just two totally different styles of storytelling. And both equally need research of some level.

My own research for the Kingdom Lock stories is still ongoing. And I dont think it will ever really end. Its amazing how I keep uncovering new and interesting things about the period: 1914-18; the area I set my stories in: Mesopotamia and Persia; and some of the historical characters involved. 

I think, what with the current interest in the First World War, more and more documents are being unveiled all the time, and more and more information is being revealed about certain situations and people during that rich period of history. I peruse old diaries, military reports, maps and photographs, as well as hunting out new and fascinating books (both recent and old) related to the war. More often than not there is some little gem, somewhere inside them, that I store away for use in a later story. And its amazing how much films and fiction produced both during the war and since can help, too. I value those as highly as I do history books.

An example of a recent piece of research I had to undertake for my second Lock adventure, For Kingdom and Country, was trying to discover the type of smart evening wear officers would dress in whilst dining out in a hot climate. I knew that they couldn’t possibly wear the familiar short red mess jackets, far too stifling, but try as I might I just couldn’t find anything out. Then I happened upon a great Australian website run by a bloke who went into intricate details about military uniforms of all eras. I emailed him with my problem and a mere few days later not only did I get a detailed reply, but it was also illustrated with various colour drawings of hot weather mess attire (white jackets, in case you wanted to know). 

Of course, I could have written the scene in such a way that I didn’t have to mention the exact type of uniform worn, but I wanted the section of my story, as I do with all my writing, to feel authentic. Yes, white dinner jackets are not integral to the tale, and a reader may not even register the fact, but I do and I feel it is these little details that give Historical Fiction, and my work, believability. 

If a writer can decorate their story with intricate details based on fact, then it helps to make the world they’ve created and set their story in authentic and real. After all, Historical Fiction is time travel for a reader. It is a way of exploring new worlds, old worlds really, and of delving into the past and living there for some 300 to 400 pages or so.

Research goes on and you can never win, you can never do enough. For an author, the trick is knowing when to stop; it is knowing when to put down the history books and the diaries and the memoirs , it is knowing when to pick up the pen

Visit I.D. Roberts at his website or tweet @kingdomlock

Featured Book 

The ground in front of Lock kicked up a spray of snow. Moments later a gunshot rang out, echoing loudly off the mountainside. Lock felt Amy tense as he staggered and turned. On the furthest ridge behind them, no more than a mile away, there were now three men on horseback. 'Bugger!' Lock turned away and laboured on. He tried to think only of their escape and not the impact he would feel when the expected bullet pierced his body ending his mission. Not long now, a voice in his head whispered, it won't take long for their pursuers to cover the gap between them on horseback. Hide! We need somewhere to hide, his subconscious screamed. But he could see nothing, only a barren, harsh, unforgiving landscape.

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