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Merging fact and fiction

When I was in Windhoek at the Goete-Institut, I was asked a lot about writing historical fiction, about my method and why I do certain things and not others.

Searching for the answers to these questions crystallised my thoughts in an enlightening way. Often I just do things because they seem to be the right thing to do but not with a lot of conscious knowledge about why I made those choices. It’s intuitive; I just know this is how it must be.

Being forced to articulate that is good, it pushes me to search for the whys which often teach me a few things.

Since I write professionally, I write many different sorts of things. Some I think of as ‘my day job’ such as this column or some of the educational writing or freelance magazine writing that I do. 

But then there is the writing I do for myself, for the art, for the passion of it, such as my historical novels. I love historical research and I love the stories that form in my mind as the facts take-up their place there. I’d always thought that I write these novels for me alone. It’s only later, much further along the process that I begin to think at all about an audience. But after being forced to think further, if I look at all three of the stories I’ve told in my historical novels so far, each when I began to do research for them angered me.

The injustice of what happened fuelled my will to know more and to write about what I found out.  I wanted other people to see these things too. This was a revelation to me. The three novels: one about the colonial genocide in Namibia, the second about a witch trial in Botswana in Kgosi Sechele’s kingdom, and the third about a circuit court case in 1879 in Victoria West South Africa where prisoners of war were murdered.  In each, I was shocked and angry that these stories mostly stayed hidden behind the facts of history.

This was really what prompted me to begin each project, this I suddenly understood now after being forced to think deeper about my initial motivations.

The other thing I

was asked more than once in Windhoek was how, as a novelist, I merged the facts with the fiction. They wanted to know the rules. I told them there were no rules, but as I thought more on it I realised there were. The main rule is your allegiance as a fiction writer to tell a good story.

This is imperative. The research should feed the story it should not be the story. We all know as readers when a novelist dumps a pile of facts on us —for example, in a murder mystery with complex forensic science or when a character has an unique job or an interesting hobby the writer has researched extensively about— we skip it. Elmore Leonard, the author of Get Shorty, explained when asked how to write a good story: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.”  People skip fact dumps in a novel, leave them out.

So this means yes, you’ve done your research, you know the facts, but those facts should only inform the plot and characterisation.

They should not be part of your book. Bits and pieces perhaps but not fact dumps. The historical facts will guide where your plot goes and how your characters react.

In one session I gave the example that when I started writing The Scattering I thought my main character, Tjipuka, would end up in Mahalapye since I knew that many Baherero fled Namibia and ended up there.

But once I started to do the research I realised that was impossible. For my story, I needed Tjipuka to still be quite young by the time she comes to Bechuanaland but the Baherero only came to Mahalapye in 1923. That’s how the facts inform your plot. I had to change the setting to Tsau.

As much as this semi-hermit bulks at attending these public events, they are a sort of strong medicine to open my mind so that I can see what is in there from a slightly different perspective and that is always a good thing.

Its all I write



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