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Monday, 11 January 2010

The Double Shadow

I am on chapter twenty of the new book, which I think is going to be called THE DOUBLE SHADOW. My editor at Orion seems keen on that title and I must say I like it a lot better than the working title: The Memory Chamber.

It’s quite a challenge, all the research that needs to be done for a book set in a different time to the one we live in. The Double Shadow is set in the 1930s, which is a period that seems to me like a U-bend in the sink of history. I am struck by how distant sixty years ago seems to us now and how much the world has changed.

Take mobile phones. As witty as the Orange adds are, they have a serious point - that if mobile phones had been around, what a huge effect they would have had on the First and the Second World Wars. I was talking to a group of young people trying to explain how hard it was to get the news to all the troops in 1919 that the amnesty had happened, that they could finally stop fighting. “Why didn’t they use their mobile phones, miss?” one girl said.

In many ways it is one of the great tragedies of modern education that history is not seen as vital for young people to learn. If history isn’t studied as it should be, how will the next generation deal with events that keep coming round time and time again and always will do, for as long as humans live? How will they learn from the past, from both its soaring successes and detrimental mistakes?

I am not a teacher, I am not a historian. I am a storyteller who’s fascinated by the past.

What I have discovered is that there are many different layers on the research front, and many different ways to approach research, like there are many ways to approach history itself. What works well, for me at least, is to do a general sweep of the period I’m interested in. Then I find areas that intrigue me, normally the ones I know nothing about initially, and go in for more careful, deep research.

I’m now on the fourth novel that I’ve written in a historical setting and I think I’ve got the process a bit more sorted. The best thing to is write the story even if it’s not historically correct. Then, when you have shaped it out, and done all your research, you can go back and correct it, filling in and taking out what does and doesn’t fit with the time.

I think the one thing to avoid is becoming what I would call a time travelling tourist. You know - one of those bores who has taken every picture there is to take of their holiday and insists that you see each and every one. As fascinating as the past is, it shouldn’t wear or tear at the story, neither should it be so inaccurate that its faults trip up its credibility. History will always be seen, no matter what, through the eyes of the time we live in.

The story is everything.