One of the biggest problems I’m facing with writing a historical novel, set in a real place at a real time, is the difficulty of interaction. While I’ve been to Edinburgh many times, I’ve never been there in the early 1820s, where the bulk of The December Book is set. It was a busy, vibrant place, full of life and activity, but what I know about it is what I’ve researched. Unlike, for example, Krakow, I can’t visit the place I’m writing about and immerse myself in it for a few days. All I can do, and have done, is try to find the real places which ghost across the ages, and try to visualise what once was. No matter how good your imagination, researching something is like looking at it through a pane of glass, unable to touch what you’re seeing.
It’s having an odd effect on my writing, which I’m having to be constantly vigilant about. Too often, I’m finding myself writing characters who are watching what’s going on around them without interacting with it. They’re in my shoes, obviously, because I’m all they have to guide them.
It’s a problem I haven’t really faced before, what with most of my fiction being set in environments that are at least a little familiar to me. When that’s the case, it’s far easier to merge fact and fantasy. Characters interact naturally with their environment, because I have too.
The problem, as I’ve found, isn’t insurmountable, as long as you know you’re doing it (and to be honest, there are early chapters that need revisited for this very reason). While the work I’ve done in terms of research removes me one step from the action, it’s through actively engaging my imagination that I’m able to take two steps forward and counter that one step back.
It’s one more obstacle that’s (in my own experience) unique to this book, and boy, is it slowing things down. I’ll be honest – although I said at the start that I wasn’t imposing any sort of deadline on the writing of this novel, I’d sort of assumed I’d be further along by now. Still, at least I know the reasons why I’m not, and that’s a good recipe to counter frustration. My approach isn’t changing. I’ll take the thing at its own pace, and see what comes. I’d rather get it as ‘right’ as my abilities allow, than rush ahead, do a shoddy job, and be left with something inadequate in my hands when I start thinking about submitting it to various publishers.