I am a pack rat.
I am a collection of facts and quotes and pictures. Half-formed memories of knowing something once. Countless overlapping images, dropped off-kilter across my surroundings, a shadow image of the past – names, dates, dresses, diseases – laid out like a pattern over fabric.
The past is a foreign country and I am compelled to read guidebooks on it, to holiday in my mind. History was somewhere I thought I knew, a familiar city I could navigate through like a local. I thought writing a historical setting would be easy.
Of course, I was entirely missing the point.
The question I get, over and over: how did you go about researching? How do you know when you’ve done enough to start writing? The wrong questions.
The right ones: what is historical research for? When writing a book set in the past, what are you trying to do?
It took me several drafts to understand this point. Dangerous Remedy is set in latter days of the French Revolution, during the period known as The Terror where the revolution seems to have been poisoned and lost to the designs of dictatorial monsters. Early versions had so much more of the political nuance baked in – but I hadn’t understood the needs of the story I was telling. In such a fast-paced, action-heavy plot this detail not only got lost, it made the story harder to grasp.
So I thought again: what is this research for?
Writing historical is just like writing fantasy. You are trying to bring to life a world your reading has and never will see in real life. You are making a choice whether to bring the reader in to something, to make them at home, or whether to make them uncomfortable, to plunge them into something alien and other. Idealised, exoticised, vilified – you make that call.
Setting a story in the past, I must make a million tiny choices. The past is not immutable fact, it is an ever-shifting modern construction, and by writing it I am part of that act. It can never be apolitical.
Knowing that: what research is important now? What makes the world feel alive? Suddenly the politics is only one small fragment. Do we all understand the political nuances at play now? Do we understand it in the way future historians will analyse it? Or do we think about the price of food and rent, if our clothes are clean, are we safe in our homes? Where can we have fun? Can we safely be ourselves? What are our responsibilities?
I put down books about factions and policy, and instead I researched clothes, food, streetscapes, the sounds and smells that become so normal to us we don’t notice them. I research where my battalion would live and how? How might they have grown up? What was normal to them? What had the revolution changed?
That’s not to say the politics is unimportant. Writing a book set in the French Revolution it would be impossible to remove it. But again, I had to understand what sort of book I was writing and where that research would help or hinder. Perhaps I didn’t need passages explaining nicene infighting, but I needed it to give depth. I let that detail come into the questions the story asked. What should revolution look like? What happens when principles crash against practicalities? Camille, one of the narrators and leader of the Battalion of the Dead who are hired to rescue people from the guillotine, condemns what the revolution became – but is rapidly confronted with the alternative – a return to Royalist rule. And finds herself making the same impossible choices – what is she willing to do in the name of what she thinks is right?
Time was my biggest blocker: I didn’t have it spare to spend days at the British Library reading rooms or getting through every book I wanted to. I didn’t have money to visit Paris. My friend was strategy – find a period map as my bible, use street view and pictures to create Paris in my head. I looked at films or tv set in the same period, compared their depictions of normal life. I got good at mining French wikipedia for its footnotes as a shortcut to the most useful French language sources.
And sometimes the best research happens to you.
Now, four months into a global pandemic, I understand what it is to live through something huge and frightened and out of your control. That you might, like Guil, read every bit of news, ever report and think piece you can get your hands on. Or you might, like Al, take stupid risks and hide from the enormity of what is happening. I have learnt what it is to see society shaken, the world turned upside down, the strange urgency of everything, the monotony, the shock of change, the hugeness that overwhelms and paralyses. The hope. The bargaining.
I ended up with a book that does not have all the historical detail I wanted to include – but it is a better book for that restraint, I think. This is the most important thing I learnt from all my research: What is research for? What story are you trying to tell?
How you represent the past matters. I think about that far more than I think about dates and names and dynasties.
(c) Kat Dunn
About Dangerous Remedy:
The first in a dazzling, commercial, historical adventure series set in the extravagant and deadly world of the French Revolution. A whirlwind of action, science and magic reveals, with a diverse cast of fearless heroines, a band of rebels like no other.
Camille, a revolutionary’s daughter, leads a band of outcasts – a runaway girl, a deserter, an aristocrat in hiding. As the Battalion des Morts they cheat death, saving those about to meet a bloody end at the blade of Madame La Guillotine. But their latest rescue is not what she seems. The girl’s no aristocrat, but her dark and disturbing powers means both the Royalists and the Revolutionaries want her. But who and what is she?
In a fast and furious story full of the glamour and excesses, intrigue and deception of these dangerous days, no one can be trusted, everyone is to be feared. As Camille learns the truth, she’s forced to choose between loyalty to those she loves and the future.
Order your copy online here.