Every now and then, people ask me questions about how to write. I like the questions, but whether my answers are useful or not remains a moot point.
Recently, I keep getting asked about thinking.
Specifically, how can anyone write about a historic figure’s mindset, if there’s no primary source material to say what they were feeling or thinking on any given day or hour? How much can a writer of non-fiction inject into the story?
In my view, there’s a few different ways to tackle the problem.
But first this: we can never truly know what other people think, especially people from the past. Even if people tell you what they think, it’s really only what they think at that moment (and we all change our minds about things) or it’s what they think you want to hear. No, your bum doesn’t look big in that, darling.
Similarly, if something’s written down, we need to consider the audience for that letter or document. You’ll write a different letter to your mum about your holiday romance than the letter you write to your best friend. So it’s impossible to know the ‘truth’ about what people think, thought or felt.
That’s why we love fiction – you absolutely know what the characters are thinking. In real life, though, nothing is ever so clear. The best fiction, I believe, tells us truths about what it is to be human. And the best non-fiction makes it clear that there is no single ‘truth’.
So how to tackle the ‘what were they thinking’ problem in non-fiction?
Some writers make it up. They insert fictionalised scenes into the narrative, where there might be gaps in the historical records. I prefer those scenes to be flagged, in italics or similar, so the reader knows what’s fact and what’s fiction. Seamlessly merging the invented scenes into the non-fiction narrative is a slippery slope to hell, as far as I’m concerned, and any such works should be moved to the shelf labelled ‘historical fiction’. Which is a fine shelf, and one I enjoy, but it’s not non-fiction.
Other writers use phrases like: ‘she must have thought X…’ or ‘surely he believed he was right…’ or ‘she would have been very frightened’. I think these should be used very sparingly and there are usually workarounds that are more effective. It’s often possible to imply what the subject thought, without being explicit: ‘It was any mother’s worst nightmare.’ ‘The situation was terrifying.’ ‘She had never seen anything like it in her life.’
The third solution is to not even try to guess what they were thinking. Instead, present the facts that you do know and then let the reader decide. Their guess is probably as good as yours anyway, especially if you’ve presented the facts in such a way as to lead to a particular conclusion.
And finally, it’s perfectly fine to speculate. ‘The subject did X, Y and Z. I wonder if she ever knew how much she was missed by her friends back in the old country.’
I’ve heard historian Clare Wright say that non-fiction writers ‘can’t make stuff up’. And I very firmly agree. But it is entirely possible for a writer to use their craft to bring non-fiction to life without making stuff up. Perversely, that’s actually where the creativity comes in.
So tell me – how do YOU prefer to have the ‘what were they thinking’ question resolved?
My preference is something along the lines of: these were her actions, this is what she wrote/is reported to have said, this is what I infer was her motive
Of biographies I’ve read in the past few years, one on Ernestine Hill included fiction without the reader being told where. Totally unsatisfactory. And one on Caroline Chisholm began each chapter with an imagined scene which I found distracting and unnecessary.
Both those techniques drive me mad, too.
I like the inference to be made, but to be signposted.
BTW I’ve received a torrent of publicity about That Book.
They’ll have to try much harder than that to get me interested in it.
Subtle inference works for me too (on the page – much less so in real life, ha ha).