Tales of a Time Traveler
It’s been a year since my debut novel, The Cook’s Temptation, was published and although I believed I would begin another one, I did resist the idea of an historical. At least I did at first.
The debut novel was set in Victorian England. The research spanned many years. During a trip to the U.K. to “fact check,” I spent my days tracing the footsteps of the protagonist Cordelia Tilley. Like most historical novelists, I wanted to ensure that the details of the story were as accurate as they could possibly be. If Cordelia entered the Old Bailey in London, I wanted to stand where she stood and look at the same courtroom as she might have in the 1890s, or at least what I imagined the courtroom would have looked like more than a century ago.
When I returned to Canada, my on-the- ground research helped me with the next and final drafts of my novel. But now that I’m writing a second novel, I keep asking myself why I’ve chosen another historical. On top of the enormity of writing more than 100,000 words, I’m stuck once again with the painstaking task of researching the period, which in this case is the Cold War: the underground war revolving mostly around espionage that stretched from 1946 until 1989. It was a dark time when radicals were subject to blacklisting and, in Canada, jailed for their affiliation with left-wing parties. In the U.S., Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for allegedly passing atomic secrets about the Manhattan project to the Soviets.
Conjuring up Cold War memories means thinking about the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and movies such as Dr. Strangelove and On the Waterfront. John Le Carré, a former British spy, began writing his novels about Cold War espionage. The Russians sent a dog and then a man into space.
I continue to question why I just don’t write a novel set in the here and now and dispense with all the research I’m forcing upon myself. What it comes down to is this: I can’t. The emotional pull of the past won’t let my imagination reside in the present. The joy of writing historical fiction is figuring out how your characters would behave, think and feel given the real circumstances of the period.
It might be the same for writers who thrive in the future, although I can’t imagine entirely inventing a new world, one that hasn’t ever existed. I have to admit, my writer’s self prefers to travel backward in time. It feels like falling through a black hole and not emerging until the book is done. That’s where the writer in me is most alive. If I’m being entirely honest, the joy I experience when writing is the full immersion in another century, and the luxury of being immersed so fully in that time that it becomes more real to me than the present.
Writing an historical takes ages, but the time spent in a past world is the ultimate reward.
Joyce Wayne visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, March 4, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Karen Connelly, Hoa Nguyen and Waubgeshig Rice. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Go Social: Using crowds, comments and community to gain influence online,” by Zoe Di Novi of Wattpad.