Friday, July 28, 2017

Peter Pan and the historical novel

The Stowaway began as a fantasy story, but it very quickly became a historical novel about Edwardian England (and other places). When I discovered the Historical Novel Society, I realized I had found a group of people who also understood the pleasures and perils of research. And when the organizers announced their 2017 conference would be held in Portland, Oregon--only a few hours' trip away from me--I knew this was something I shouldn't miss.

And sure enough, I found panels and sessions on topics immediately relevant to my work, from one on historical fiction set in and around World War I (a conflict that will inform the potential sequel to The Stowaway) to panels on Gilded Age fiction (including fairy tales set in that time period) to Victorian funeral customs  (as there is a funeral in The Stowaway).

Art in Harper's New Monthly Magazine,1880, by George du Maurier,
grandfather of the Llewelyn Davies boys who inspired
J. M. Barrie to write Peter Pan.

I also learned about new places to find primary source materials, some expensive and difficult to access for non-academics, but others free and online, such as ProfNet (set up for journalists, but helpful for other writers as well), The American Association for State and Local History, and Google Scholar --and don't forget Google Maps. The Metropolitan Museum's website Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History is particularly wonderful, both as a historical reference and for illustrations of building interiors.

Always of interest to historical fiction writers is the question of balancing history with fiction. Specific facts add realism to a novel and bring the reader deeper into that world, but too much of that can distract from the story the writer is trying to tell. Inaccuracies can throw a reader out of the story. And as was also discussed at the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association conference I attended in Seattle last year, a historical novel is also a novel about today. Research turns up new information every day, and our interpretations of the past vary accordingly--and it's unavoidable that we bring our own contemporary values and outlook to what we write. We inevitably comment on the time we're writing in as well as the time a novel takes place, and that, along with putting the past into context with the present, makes historical fiction relevant to modern readers.

Peter Pan in Barrie's hometown of
Kirriemuir, Scotland.

The 2018 HNS conference will take place next August in J. M. Barrie's home country of Scotland. This is a little more difficult to arrange than a four-hour drive from home--but no doubt it would be worth the effort.