Good historical fiction is not only about the accuracy of facts, but also about the details of human experience.


How do you begin the process of finding a novel? In the case of my latest book, Man at Sea, the task seemed simple if a bit daunting.

The novel is partly set during World War II, so I spent a lot of time digging through the Imperial War Museum archives. It also examines Malta’s transition from British colony to independence in the 1960s, so I was fortunate enough to undertake several research trips to the island.

As a writer, the key is not so much to piece together reams and reams of material, but to find the details that make a period or situation come alive for you and, eventually, for the reader – these few facts which make a sprawling and multi-faceted subject. specific enough to identify with and sympathize with. Novelist Sarah Waters once memorably described these nuggets of information as the “poignant trivia” that provides the canvas for historical fiction.

As a teacher of creative writing, I teach students not to judge their historical fiction solely on historical accuracy, but on its ability to evoke an emotional response. It’s what academic Melissa Addey describes in her research as a “playful exploration within the framework of the historical record”, which allows for the incorporation of smaller, more idiosyncratic details.

Pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe (at the piano) with some of the recovering Airmen he treated for severe burns.
Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and East Grinstead Museum, Author provided (no reuse)

Other research points to the helpful distinction between accuracy and authenticity, with the latter allowing details based on the characters a reader will connect with.

For me, the initial narrative of the war clicked with the discovery of the Guinea Pig Club. It was the nickname adopted by a group of airmen with severe burn injuries who were operated on by pioneering plastic surgeon, Archibald McIndoe, at East Grinstead in Sussex.

At the time, I knew that one of the novel’s protagonists, Stuart, had been injured in the war, but the Guinea Pig Club provided a wealth of detail and features that really brought it to life. In July 2017, I made my first visit to the ‘City That Wasn’t Looking’, where the club’s honorary secretary, Bob Marchant, showed me around Queen Victoria Hospital.

Here are the cedar-wood huts I had seen in the background of photographs showing men with bandaged faces and long, trunk-like skin grafts as they awaited their next surgery. And the balconies above the operating room from which other patients watched the procedures undertaken by McIndoe. Back at the East Grinstead Museum, Bob showed me the club’s magazine archives.

In these pages, I found the camaraderie my character would yearn for during those long post-war years, the sense of support and belonging that could sustain him in civilian life.

And I was really moved to find the Christmas 1960 issue with a memorial to McIndoe who died that year. At the end was the simple statement: “There are no words.” The Guinea Pig Club and the debt of gratitude the members owed their surgeon became the core of Stuart’s character.

But the emotional connection to Malta itself came from much closer to home.

A family story

In 1956 my grandparents were living in Malta while my grandfather was stationed in the Mediterranean Fleet. My late grandmother, Marian Scrimgeour, kept a diary that was ideal for providing distinctive details.

She didn’t experience the ferocious air raids of the siege of Malta, but she weathered the Suez crisis with two young children in tow. Thus, his account of daily life includes notes such as: “I watched the review of NATO ships while doing laundry on the roof. To cook. Having dinner. A and J sleeping”. This unwavering pursuit of daily domestic chores as tensions escalated provided valuable insight into imagining life on the island during the war.

A page from a 1950s newspaper.
My grandmother’s diary.
Liam Bell, Author provided (no reuse)

I also found an entry in which she passes notes with a friend via “the ice cream man”, and there is a mention, at the end of April, of milk that has gone sour overnight. In the novel, I used these little hints for the characters to note the arrival of the hot Maltese summer.

These real-life experiences had the advantage of feeling period-specific and would have been nearly impossible to derive from my own travels some 60 years later. I was also fortunate to be able to speak with my grandfather, Murray Scrimgeour, about his memories before his death.

I scribbled notes on his ship, HMS Duchess, and the position of the Admiralty in Malta. But the most valuable bits I gleaned from him were the specific naval credentials, such as Lord Mountbatten, second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, being disparagingly referred to as a “straw boss”; and the “two-tier” wardroom, or officers’ mess, where Maltese were mainly hired as stewards for British officers.

A young man in a kilt and a young woman in a summer dress standing in a garden in the 1950s.
My grandparents Murray and Marian Scrimgeour who lived in Malta after the Second World War.
Liam Bell, Author provided (no reuse)

My grandfather told me what it was like to be moved to a “war footing” and have to evacuate his young family from the island via a flight on a decommissioned bomber from World War II with a faulty fourth engine.

He also recounted how dangerous his hired Morris Minor’s driving was, and it’s a nod to him that Stuart’s character observes that the locals were “all driving like ricocheting bullets”.

History and staff

Reading the finished novel now, it’s lines like these that make me smile. It’s easy to search a newspaper article or an official report for the facts, but finding that kind of detail that accurately evokes the experience of living at that historic moment is so much more important to the novelist.

A statue of a surgeon with a burnt patient.
A statue of pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe with a patient, East Grinstead.
Martin Jennings/Wikipedia, CC BY

As Man at Sea is released to the world, I hope the “poignant anecdotes” Waters talks about provide a sense of connection and immediacy. My bookshelves are filled with authoritative accounts of the Second World War and detailed analyzes of Malta’s journey to independence, but the passages of the narrative that readers will hopefully identify with are those provided by the Guinea Pig Club and in particular by my late grandparents.

I’ve learned that the key to writing historical fiction is not to provide all the facts and figures, but to comb through your research and identify the one in ten detail that the reader can emotionally connect with. . It’s the human experience that really resonates.

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