Malaysian-American author, Sandeep Ray was recently chosen as among three winners of the Hanif Kureishi Writing Competition. The professor of film who currently lectures at Nottingham University Kuala Lumpur, is also someone who understands the gargantuan task of writing a novel – what more of historical fiction, which is a more daunting marathon that demands fact-checking and accuracy in the portrayal or real events and real people.
His debut novel “A Flutter in the Colony” was first published by Harper Collins India in 2019 and relaunched in July 2022 by Penguin Southeast Asia. It tells a story of migration: the Senguptas, an Indian family from Kolkata, must find their new feet in 1950s colonial Malaya, a land ripe with hope (and the incumbent fall of the British empire).
Malaysian writer Preeta Samarasan described Ray’s fictional debut as “an old-fashioned feast of a book, in the tradition of the great Russian novels,” with “lovingly developed characters [that] will stay with you long after [the book’s] shocking end.”
But how to write historical fiction that satisfies audiences and is worthy of praise by other landmark authors? Eksentrika asked Sandeep Ray, and here he gives five important suggestions to make your historical fiction soar to greater heights.
You stop looking things up when you feel that to the best of your knowledge you have the correct information.
Accuracy never hurts a story. While it is fairly easy to look things up nowadays, sometimes you do need to go the extra mile. For example, I had my character sip a soft drink from a plastic packet secured by raffia. I had grown up drinking Fanta this way.
But I began worrying about when people actually started doing that in Malaysia. It is not easy to find information like this at a library. After some probing on social media though, I found out that this couldn’t have happened in the 1950s—when my story was set. It was actually the great cartoonist Lat who answered my question.
Accuracy can be deceiving and needs to be checked against social knowledge. You can easily find out what a road was called by checking a municipal map from an archive. But what did the local people actually call that road? I think that one has to write a tale that is at once fictitious but plausible. I feel vindicated when someone who has lived through that period reads my book and says, “yes, yes, this seems about right, could have happened.”
It depends on what you are writing. If the purpose of your plot is to draw attention to a particular historical event — well, in that case, it is not merely necessary, but history is the main hook to hang your story on.
Having said that, one has to consider that big ‘events’ have usually received a lot of attention. There is the ‘H’ of history that we read about in school and in university, and then there is [a smaller] ‘h’ – stories of people whose lives were affected by that caps-locked ‘H’.
I’m keen on the ‘h’s of the past — smaller details that make experiences of the past relatable to people removed in time. I try to situate fairly ordinary people within a larger historical context. I am personally not interested in exhuming famous dead men—they might pop up in the background, but most people lived their entire lives out without running into Chin Peng or hanging out with Stamford Raffles.
There should be a connection in terms of some emotional access to the past through stories of an older generation or through other research. How else would you be inspired to write?
One hopefully discovers something that is important to them, and not something that is trending. I do believe that it is crucial to visit the sites of what you are writing about, even decades or centuries after the fact.
Standing on ground zero of where your story unfolds gives you an experiential sense of a place and it may move you in ways you had not anticipated. For example, it was only later in life that I realized that the very landscape I had run around in, barefoot and often naked, had been the location of Japanese occupation brutalities, British murders of communists, and yet ordinary people had persevered and even blossomed! I began to see the town differently when I understood this. I am aghast when writers (and historians) say things like, ‘all I need is a good library’, which really means internet access nowadays. You can always tell from the writing.
I don’t know what publishers want. I would hope they want different things and a manuscript one has slaved over will catch someone’s eye. If you try to second guess what people want, you’re working backward.
[Whether plotting or improvising,] one writes by writing. That’s really the best way. Sometimes it helps to set a goal. I had a ‘500 words a day’ rule when I was writing my dissertation and later changed it to 500 ‘good words’. That sort of target helps me – even if I finally start writing at 4 PM.
I think the most helpful approach is to consider ahead of time what sort of person your character is. Are they weak yet resolute in some ways? Are they stubborn and fallible? Are they vain but redeemable? Will they go through a major realization during the course of your story—and so on. In some ways, this is more important than the actual plot.
You put these people in a setting – the one that you have chosen – and try to lumber through. I like to find out the story by incrementally treading ahead with my characters, imagining what they would be thinking or saying.
I think one needs to be careful to not succumb to ‘presentism’ which is a fancy word for thinking about the past through a contemporary moral outlook. If the crudeness of your characters makes you cringe, you’re probably doing something right and there’s no need to whitewash it because it might offend people—one has to be honest about the setting and the context.
And, as film editors like to say, you have to be prepared to ‘murder your darlings’ in the interest of readability. Who wants to read a history lecture, no matter how well-researched it is? One should never assume that just because someone has picked up a book marketed as ‘historical fiction’ that they know, or are even keen on any of the history.
You need to worry about what it is that will make the reader turn to the next page, or better, forget to eat lunch as they keep reading. Don’t make history your crutch.
Copied and pasted from Eksentrika.
All images supplied by Sandeep Ray.