I’m reading Michael Plampin’s brand-new novel Illumination which is set in Paris in 1870 when the French capital was under siege by the Prussian army. It’s a riveting tale, with lots of surface glitter, made all the more interesting to me because I’ve just finished Alistair Horne’s account of the same event in his history, The Fall of Paris.
I’m enjoying Plampin’s tale too much to be reading it forensically. At the moment I’m romping through it devouring the big set pieces on the French balloonists who risked their lives to escape over the enemy lines with vital dispatches, and the levels of starvation which drove the Parisians to eat the contents of their zoo, and the forlorn valour of the Great Sortie. I’ll probably go back and read it again more slowly to see if I can make sense of the strange alchemical process by which writers turn fact into fiction. Already I’m making connections between imaginary characters and their real life counterparts and the odd event or observation is ringing bells with me as well.
I’m intrigued by the way in which a line in a history book can act as the seed to an idea which then flowers into something other – a fully realised independent creation.
You might find an analysis of the process helpful too, particularly if you are interested in writing historical fiction yourself. By comparing a factual and a fictional account of the same event you can examine different sources like separate ingredients in a story. That way you’ll gain a greater understanding of how to cook them into something as satisfying as Illumination.