Talking to the Richard III Society today, I was reminded of the moment when I got the answer to the problem of how to write A Secret Alchemy. In a TLS review of two books on the Dark Ages, the reviewer R I Moore said this:
Historians have to live with Heisenbergian uncertainty: they cannot simultaneously plot position and trajectory, without distortion. The forces that make for change are always more important for the future, and therefore in retrospect, than they seem at the time…
At the time, the blinding light that it shone showed me why I didn't want to write the novel as bio-pic: you can't really express the trajectory of a life until it's over, and for my two narrators their lives weren't over. So the answer was to plot a series of Elysabeth and Antony's positions: the individual moments in as much vividness as they could be known: the stations of the Cross, as it were, the stages of the pilgrimage. This was the point I was making in my talk.
As the train lolloped through the Suffolk countryside of The Mathematics of Love on the way to Norwich, and I was looking through my notes, the second part of that quotation came into focus. One of the problems I always find when researching is that historians are talking about the new, what's coming, what people in the forefront of things, the ones with the intellect or the money or the curiosity to pursue particular interests, were doing/saying/eating/wearing. They're talking about change, in other words: about historical process. But on the whole, unless a character is a cross between Jean Paul Gaultier, Nostradamus and - who - Rimbaud? - they won't be doing the most advanced thing, in all aspects of their lives, that someone, somewhere, may be doing in that year. Indeed, how many leaden bits of info-dump have you met in a historical novel, where someone comments on how much better/worse it is now that trains are... or food is... or people can...? You just know the writer's been reading a history book. As Moore says, what changes and what forces turned out to be important are largely invisible to people at the time. This, of course, is one reason I keep finding myself writing parallel narratives; they embody change over time in the novel, when I can't easily or clearly embody it in individual characters' lives.
The related problem is that history writing is not just about change; its whole function is to draw general conclusions from the particular details it assembles. But as Jane Smiley says, in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, the novel as a form resists generalisation: it's nothing, it's not a novel, if it's not about individual experience and consciousness. Moore discusses the dilemma for historians: how can they simultaneously evoke the particularity of individual villages, monasteries and events, while also drawing a more general picture which may be truer to the sum total of the world. There's nowt so queer as folk, and the chances are there isn't a single individual village/place/person which actually conforms to that general picture. So which is more useful to us fictioneers? Indeed, which is more 'true' in either the historian's or the novelist's terms?
When I'm researching something happening in 1620, therefore, the chances are I'll be reading with as much care all about food and clothes and houses in 1580. And it's a huge relief when a historian stops talking about how theologians argued, or what percentage of rood-screens were torn down in each reign, and starts talking about what William the Ploughman actually understood and believed, of what he heard in church. Which isn't to say you can't make him be the head of the local Lollards, if you choose: only that if you do, don't also give him avant-garde taste in tapestries, and a nice line in predicting how a death called black will alter the labour market forever. Leave that to the historians.