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Worlds Apart October 2007




Last month, we looked at some of the general methods and tools you can use to approach your initial research: the Internet, libraries, museums, galleries, interviews.  This month, we’re going to get a bit more specific. 


If you want to create a vibrant, vivid and realistic world for your readers, one that will both interest and entertain them, you must be prepared to put in the detail, the small items that reveal the nature of the world and show what it meant to live in that place at that time.


The research continues as you write, of course, because there are always items and issues that need to be discovered, checked or verified.  Keep good records and be as organized as you can.  Your research must be meticulous if you are to avoid anachronistic inconsistencies and be authentic.  Remember, your task is to create a world which is both believable and understandable, one which will possess realism, and also allow your readers to use their own imaginations.  The research work need not be arduous; it should be exciting and mind-expanding.  After all, if you aren’t fascinated by your world, how can you expect your readers to be?


A specific form of research for historical fiction is to read what was being written during the period in which your story is set.  Official documents, journals and diaries provide a wealth of insight into how people used to live.  They will also help you understand how people described and interpreted the events in their lives, and this will assist you as you evolve a narrative style appropriate to your setting and develop realistic characters.


Notwithstanding the value of documents, diaries and journals as examples of narration and description, they seldom provide examples of actual speech.  One way around this problem is to read novels – if they are available, of course - written during the period in which your story is set.  Dickens, Chaucer, Austen, Twain and Melville come to mind at once, and they should be your first call, but don’t limit yourself to the legendary names.  Any books published in your time period will provide a record of the words and expressions people used.  Pay special attention to the differences between formal and everyday speech because this will contribute to authenticity.  There is a world of difference between G’mornin’ and Good morrow, and by differentiating between styles of speech you can say much about your characters, their social status and education.


If your requirements tend towards the more exotic, you can read translations of such works as The Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong in fourteenth century China, or The Tale of Genji, written a thousand years ago in Japan by Murasaki Shikibu.  Even older texts than these can be found, and as you conduct your research, don’t overlook transcriptions of ancient sagas and epic poems.  There is a vast amount of material out there, and you can find not only linguistic information, but also priceless insights into the times in which these works were written.  It is said God (or the devil) is in the detail, and this was never truer than in the writing of historical fiction.


At the end of all this reading, be certain you don’t end up simply copying someone else’s style.  Use these other writers and works as examples and guides only.  Completely fill your imagination with the words, phrases and expressions used, and you will be able to offer the necessary touches of authenticity in addition to bringing your own voice to your writing.  The rule of thumb is simple: if your world is not real to you, you cannot make it real to your readers.  If it doesn’t live in your imagination, you won’t make it live in anyone else’s.


But what if you are dealing with the world of another country or culture that exists today?  How can you examine their patterns of speech if you can’t speak their language?  This is where interviews can come to your rescue.  Assuming your characters will be speaking English in your story, seek out individuals who come from the country in question and discover how they speak English.  Do they have typical phrases?  How does their accent influence their use of English?  A person who has only learned English in a classroom often speaks in a formal and unnatural style, and does not always use the vernacular which characterizes the speech of those who speak the language as a mother tongue.  Studying and noting such idiosyncratic habits of speech will enable you to reproduce a spoken style of English which not only is true to the culture involved, but will also say something about your characters as well.


If you are creating your own world of speculation or fantasy, an excellent vehicle, when used carefully and in moderation, is the creation of distinct speech patterns and even original vocabulary.  It is not mandatory, of course, but your characters can be given not only an aura of realism, but can also be shown as different or separate from people living in the here and now.  For example, Star Trek enthusiasts will remember the Vulcan salutation, live long and prosper.  When using this expression, Vulcans were certainly speaking English, but its use separated them from other English speakers.  


Finally, it is vital to read and study the work of writers who excel in the creation of other worlds.  Whatever your genre or timeframe, find and read the acknowledged experts.  There is simply no substitute for it.

Write on,