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On History in Fiction and me: the current state of play

I’ve done almost all my teaching prep for tomorrow. It was very interesting, because tomorrow’s class is pretty much what I’ve been researching recently but from a writer’s point of view. When I first taught this, I used the same notes for writer’s and researcher’s views, but now I have clearly bifurcated lines. This is one of the reasons the book is undergoing changes: I think it was originally a manual for writers (for people kept asking me for that) and now it most definitely isn’t. The two don’t fit in the same space anymore because my understanding has changed so very much.

And this is why writers should also engage in research if they’re going to teach other writers. I am so much better as a teacher for this work. I can teach beyond my own experience, but also beyond current popular knowledge. And I know enough to break it down into digestible portions. This latter is so not as easy as it ought to be.

I calculated last time I taught this one day workshop that I was saving some writers five to ten years of research. Now, I’m doing a lot more than that. It’s not only a matter of shortcuts, but of understanding so that writers can make decisions that are in line with the book they want to write. The story can come first, without as much faffing on the sidelines.

I won’t be talking about theory so much, tomorrow. That’s for the book. What I’ll be working through is the writer’s relationship with the history they need to use for the novel, and how that differs from the history they think they know and the history of historians. And I’m going to talk about actual tools for working through all this in a way that works for each writer and for quite specific novels. This includes a bit of research 101 and basic historiography, but these aren’t the focus of the workshop: the focus is the narrative. I want good novels, not bad history.

Now that teaching prep is done, it’s just me and my book until 5 pm, but after that I’ll take some time off, so that I can keep the distinction clear between the needs of writers and the shape of what writers do.

I know there are still people out there who want me to write the manual for writers on history in fiction. I don’t know if there are educational publishers who will take a short volume (or any at all – it’s a very specific subject after all), and I’m not willing to spend time on a long volume for it would get in the way of my research and it would get in the way of my fiction writing. I don’t have energy to chase it at this moment, anyhow. I’ll teach it instead. Like tomorrow, at the ACT Writers’ Centre.

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