This morning, I am happy to welcome Marcus Sedgwick to Eastern Penn Points! I asked Marcus if he would share a few words about writing historical fiction, and he kindly said yes.
Marcus is the winner of many prizes, most notably the Printz Award (Midwinterblood), the Booktrust Teenage Prize, and the Blue Peter Book Award. His books have been shortlisted for over thirty other awards, including the Carnegie Medal (five times), the Edgar Allan Poe Award (twice) and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize (five times). In 2011 Revolver was awarded a Printz Honor.
Don’t Forget the Story in History
by Marcus Sedgwick
I have lost track of how many writers I’ve met in the course of my career now, but I suppose it must be in the hundreds. The number one thing I’m interested in talking about when I speak to another writer is method, and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that there are as many ways of writing a book as there are writers. Everyone seems to approach it slightly differently, but that being said, on some issues, you can find writers tend to fall into one of two camps. This is certainly true of the matter of research; where, broadly speaking, you either find writers for whom doing the research on a book represents some very hard miles, or you find writers who are research junkies.
I’m firmly in the second camp, for lots of reasons. First of all, I’m simply very interested in ‘stuff’; something I feel is a basic part of being a writer. I’ll qualify that incredibly vague statement a little by saying I really like finding out about things that are unexpected, strange and little known. As someone who had a hard time at school but who basically liked the idea of learning things, being a writer is a perfect occupation. Unlike the research that our friends in Academia do, where all the relevant material must be read and digested, where facts must be proven, and where, above all else, the facts must be stuck to, consider the lot of the writer. I only need read things on a subject I find interesting or helpful, and can stop just as soon as I have what I need. I don’t have to prove anything. And above all else, if I don’t like the facts, I can change them to something that works for me better. Above all else, I promise you that researching a book is a dozen times easier than actually writing one.
On which note, that’s another reason I love to do research: it can provide you with ideas for your story that you would never have thought of yourself. This is very true with the writing of historical fiction. If you start to delve deeply into even quite recent periods of history, it’s amazing what small weird details have been all but forgotten. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that the fact you’ve come across can actually have been the case; sometimes things seem way too modern for their time, sometimes the reverse is true. These little snippets can make all the difference to a book. They can provide texture and atmosphere for sure, but can even at times drive the plot itself when you come across something particularly fascinating. My most recent book, The Ghosts of Heaven, has an episode set in an insane asylum (as the were called at the time) on Long Island in the 20s. I found out an enormous amount about the work of Dr Thomas Kirkbride, who created a new system for the care of the mentally ill, based around his theories of how the building’s very architecture, as well as the pastoral care, and social and labour activities of the hospital could contribute to the patients’ recovery. I filled notebooks with facts; but the trouble is, as you do that, you don’t know which ones you will use, and which ones you won’t.
And that’s the crux of it; the key question as a writer is what to put in, and what to leave out. We’ve all read books where you feel the author is suddenly desperate to display their knowledge of 17th century French canal boats (or whatever it may be) and it sticks out like a sore thumb. The test I use in order to permit myself to use something I’ve come across in research in a book is this: does it belong to the story? If it furthers the story; if it’s useful or necessary or indispensable; if you cannot imagine the book without it; then fine, use it. But if it feels tacked on, forced in, and altogether superfluous then it is probably there only because you are in love with it. That’s not good enough, and you owe it to your readers to take it out. So that’s my rule of thumb; don’t forget the story in history. That, after all, is why we’re reading; for story.
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MARCUS SEDGWICK was born and raised in East Kent in the South-east of England. He now divides his time between a small village near Cambridge and a remote house in the French Alps.
Marcus was Writer in Residence at Bath Spa University for three years, and has taught creative writing at Arvon and Ty Newydd. He is currently working on film and book projects with his brother, Julian, as well as a graphic novel with Thomas Taylor. He has judged numerous books awards, including the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize and the Costa Book Awards.
He has illustrated some of his books, and has provided wood-engravings for a couple of private press books.
His latest title in the US is The Ghosts of Heaven.
Read more about Marcus and his many books at his web site!
Thank you for your insight and for sharing your experience.