Historical Fact Into Historical Fiction - Inspirations and Challenges.

I'm amassing folders full of these kind of images, right now, as well as letters, notes, and other interesting bits and pieces. Many of them are old postcards, and the one above, bought on eBay, may just possibly be signed by one of the Kossak family. Wojciech Kossak painted this picture of a wintry party (perhaps a Kulig, or sleigh party) outside the castle at Zywiec in 1913. This is now in Poland proper, but back then was in that part of Poland known as Galicia. There is some evidence that Wojciech was a visitor there himself. The signature on the card looks suspiciously like a Kossak name to me. Wojciech lived until 1942, so it could even be him. Somebody else must have thought so too, because I had to bid for this one. This family of wonderful  artists is part of my family, albeit only by marriage. My lovely Great Aunt Wanda Czerkawska, who I met and stayed with before she died, although she was an old lady by that time, was married to Karol Kossak, the last surviving painter of a family of famous artists. Karol and my grandfather were great friends. Had the war not intervened, my late father would have trained with Karol, in his studio and perhaps become an artist instead of a scientist. Dad certainly sketched and painted all his life, and was a talented watercolourist.  Karol and Wanda had a daughter called Teresa. She was an animator who drew cartoons, and she may still be living in Warsaw, although I lost touch with her some time ago. Which is a pity, because I'd love to see some of the fabulous old family photographs which were in her possession, love to be able to speak to her again. I was very fond of her. I met her when I was still very young, and she seemed impossibly glamorous and bohemian to me, back then! But I don't even know if she is still alive. Charming Karol - or somebody very like him - will figure in The Winged Hussar, the sequel to the Amber Heart, but meanwhile, the artworks of the Kossaks, and my forebears, among so much else, will continue to provide inspiration for my writing.

  Meanwhile, there's another idea taking shape in my mind, which is that, as I continue to research the second novel in the series, The Winged Hussar, I should keep some kind of visual and written diary about the process itself, about how the information came to me. Sometimes, when I was researching the Amber Heart, this came in extraordinarily spooky ways, coincidences which are beyond belief, and which suggest that somebody out there wants me to forge on with this project!

Now, taking advice from an artist friend, I've bought a couple of large, blank notebooks, (is it only writers and artists, I wonder, who can take such immense pleasure from a blank notebook?) and will spend a bit of time not just researching and writing, but also writing about the process of research, about the need to give yourself permission to fictionalise fact. I'll also be looking at the emotional response to what is, after all, a very personal project. These notebooks should allow me to keep the fact more or less separate from the fiction. This in turn will allow me to tell the all-important story of the novel, without feeling tied down to the research, which is always a danger with this kind of fiction. I don't know how often, when teaching creative writing classes or workshops, I've queried some slightly clunky piece of storytelling, only to have the writer tell me earnestly, 'but it really happened like that.' To which the answer, of course, is that what really happened is quite possibly immaterial if you're writing fiction. It only really matters if you're writing fact. Not, of course that I'm suggesting that you play fast and loose with history or indulge in wild anachronisms. Just that the truth of the story you are telling, the fiction you are creating, is more important than the factual truth of a series of events which you know happened in your family's past.

In some ways, it was easier for me to tackle these problems with The Amber Heart because it was so remote from me, not just in place, but in time as well. The Winged Hussar will be much closer to my own heart, historical of course, but parts of it will be within the memory of people I have known and loved. And that presents a unique challenge. Given the popularity of family history research, I think it's this aspect of the project which will be of genuine interest to many aspiring writers out there.


Anonymous said…
Hi Catherine - having contemplated a historical novel I agree that the process of research is fascinating and could be a story in itself. But letting go of the research is much harder. In fact I still haven't succeeded and 'the novel' is just a growing pile of people and facts. I feel that letting go' of this is crucial to get a story going. Even if the story is already there, I need to write it as my own. I'm sure you have a better handle on this than me!
It's always difficult and I think everyone finds it so! You have to let go and write fiction, but that's easier said than done. The best lesson I learned was from dramatising classics for Radio 4. You had to take the drama 'out of' the book, but then there always came a point where you definitely had to set the book completely to one side, and work on the plays as plays, only going back to the book much later on, to check things out. I think it's probably the same with historical research. You do as much as you can, get into the world of the book as far as you can, but then you immerse yourself in the fiction, and - in many ways - find out what you don't know as you're writing it. Only then do you go back and do more research! But it always feels to me like 'giving myself permission' to fictionalise, and I think many writers trip up over that idea.
Anonymous said…
How is Mrs. image of the Palace? This is the Górka Duchowna, next to the city where I live. Now the Palace is a school.