Natasha Sharma, author of the History-Mystery series, writes about the experience of writing historical fiction. In celebration of Historical Fiction Week.
In a recent video call with school children, we were discussing my first book in the History-Mystery series, Akbar and the Tricky Traitor, when a child asked me, ‘Why have you used a bad word in the book?’
A couple of thousand miles away, I nearly fell off my chair. Which word could he possibly be referring to? Eeks! Was the book going to be banned next? (The publicity wouldn’t hurt!)
‘Bewakoof,’ he replied.
Ah, bewakoof. From a scene where Akbar is lambasting the Super Six, his special five-member investigative team (yes, no Birbal solving Akbar’s problems, which was another question), the word seemed just right for the moment, the person and the time the story was set in. As I wrote that dialogue, nothing could quite replace ‘bewakoof’. Not, ‘you fool’. Not, ‘you dolt’. Not even, ‘you idiot’.
There have been many moments while writing the History Mystery series, my take on historical fiction for children that I have grappled with what to put in and what to leave out. Where do I set this, how much detail based on fact or fiction do I weave in keeping in mind that this is for readers age eight years and up and whether I should use a few words as were spoken then while writing in English now. Was Akbar meant to yell ‘bewakoof’ or ‘fool’ in my book?
I began this series with a blank slate. I’d never planned to write historical fiction till the germ of an idea for the first story grew in a writing workshop. I enjoy reading historical fiction myself and have, over the years, also relished reading up on historical events that flew over my head in a blur of dull textbooks and exams, back in school. I’m neither a historian nor a history major, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It was just my starting point.
I was left to my own devices by my editors to find my balance in the story; the mix of fact and fiction that I was most comfortable with. It turned out to be a process more organic than I would have imagined, research blending its way into fiction without straining at each other.
I begin with a premise that this is a fictional story even though the central character is a prominent figure from Indian history. The fiction bit translates to a fictional plot, my own take on the character portrayal of the main character and creating additional fictional characters. So where does the history bit and weaving facts into the story to make it credible for the time it is set in, come into play?
Before I conceptualise the book, I do a fairly extensive amount of research on the time the story is set in: architecture, food, cities, clothing, transport, culture, prominent events during the time, economic and religious activity – as much as I can read up on to get a sense of the time and daily life. I research the main character: actions, habits, decrees, court life and personal routines.
Since I am writing for children and I like using humour in my writing, I keep a look out particularly for the unusual and the eccentric. I love discovering facts that children would find surprising, especially in the present day. Akbar liked to watch spiders fight for entertainment and for studying strategy. He designed himself a traveling bathroom. He was notoriously finicky about his drinking water. Pure gold as far as I’m concerned as I write historical fiction!
Relevant information assimilated in my head (and sheaves and sheaves of papers with hastily scribbled notes), it begins slotting itself into my fictional story often leading to bits of the plot itself. Ask most children or even adults about Emperor Ashoka (I’m including myself here before I wrote this book) and they’ll mention pillars, the chakra, the Kalinga war and his message pertaining to that. What I discovered as I researched for Ashoka and the Muddled Messages, was a king who left a wealth of clever messages beyond just asking for forgiveness for the bloodshed he caused. I discovered a king who realised communication and dissemination of his messages on a large scale in a format that lasted (it’s still around over 2000 years later!) was important. I read about people colouring their beards bright red, a queen who created havoc for Ashoka, notes in the Arthashastra recommending women bodyguards as the most trustworthy protection for Mauryan kings, ten in number when out in public. So much of this found its space in the plot and characters. The investigators in the book are the Tremendous Ten, ten female personal bodyguards to Ashoka. Coloured beards and his messages all muddled up, form an intrinsic part of my plot. The layout of the palace grounds as I saw the characters meet and move around is based on a prescribed layout in the Arthashastra.
For me, writing historical fiction is placing myself as I write in a certain time and space that is largely defined by historical records on townships, structures and conventions further pumped up by my imagination while staying as true as possible to what existed.
However, when I draw up a plot or create conversations between people, I know that irrespective of the age it is set in, people are driven by the very same desires, emotions and base needs as people today, perhaps some being more prominent than others due to the environment. A desire for power, wealth, security, love, joy and freedom have been some of the key drivers for human endeavour whether today or two thousand years ago and form the basis of all the stories we create.
Conversations between people are created in a setting that existed somewhat as described, driven by emotions that stay relevant forever.
I sprinkle words from the time largely in the form of official titles, food and clothing references and sometimes as a fun word to build in a flavour of the period. Hence, the head of the kitchen is the Mir Bakawal and ‘you fool’ just has to be ‘bewakoof’!
The History Mystery series come with the all-important last chapter, ‘Fact or Fiction’ to help children sort through and discover the bits in the story, often the most astonishing ones, which are based on documented evidence.
What I do hope is that though fiction, the stories encourage children to view history as fascinating stories that are waiting to be discovered with a little bit of probing and not relegated simply to exam time. But above all, they just enjoy a story I’ve had a lot of fun writing!