guest post: Google and the Death of the Historical Novel
Please welcome author Philip K. Allan today with his take on the pros and cons of writing in the digital age.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Google. As a writer of historical novels, it is the search engine that I have open on my PC as I work, ready to be dipped into to check a fact or study an image. It once provided me with a moment of pure serendipity. I needed to find some plants native to Barbados to add colour to a scene on a sugar plantation. Through Google I learnt of the Cannonball Tree, which fitted perfectly into a passage of dialogue that included some naval officers. The following day my wife and I took our daughters to visit Kew Gardens in London. In the main hot house, while waiting under a tree for the others, I glanced down to see the specimen’s name. Within twenty four hours of learning that Cannonball Tree’s existed, I was able to reach over and pat the trunk of one.
No, my issue with Google is the effect it can have on those that have grown up empowered by it. Almost any facet of knowledge is now available whenever and wherever it is needed through the smart phone in our pocket or the PC on our desks. It is, of course, a wonderful advance, but like all such advances it comes at a price. When information is so freely available, why take the time to learn? A generation is growing up with an a la carte knowledge of the world. Hold the minimum to get through life, (the next exam, the next job interview, the next meeting), because all else they might need is only a screen tap away. It parallels the debate about fake news, which can surely only exist in an environment where people put trust in an internet “fact” before their own innate wisdom.
But knowledge doesn’t work that way. If each fact is a pixel, it is the accumulation of them together that creates the picture. I write historical novels set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. Google can supply the Cannon Ball trees, but it cannot supply the ‘feel’ for the period. It is this that makes a period novel more than just a modern thriller in costume. That comes from the writer’s periphery vision. For my period any number of influences might feed in, from costume dramas to the novels of Jane Austen, from the poems of Byron to the buildings of Bath, or the cartoons of Gilray and countless other tiny fragments that have lodged in my subconscious, ready to help make that next passage feel “right”.
Will the Historical Novel of the future be studded with Google facts, but quite dead of feel? Or will the next generation of Historical Novelists buck the trend and be able to deliver? And if they do, will there be a readership to appreciate the difference?
After a century of war, revolutions, and Imperial conquests, 1790s Europe is still embroiled in a battle for control of the sea and colonies. Tall ships navigate familiar and foreign waters, and ambitious young men without rank or status seek their futures in Naval commands. First Lieutenant Alexander Clay of HMS Agrius is self-made, clever, and ready for the new age. But the old world, dominated by patronage, retains a tight hold on advancement. Though Clay has proven himself many times over, Captain Percy Follett is determined to promote his own nephew.
Before Clay finds a way to receive due credit for his exploits, he’ll first need to survive them. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog, and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. He must endeavor to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Only then might high society recognize his achievements—and allow him to ask for the hand of Lydia Browning, the woman who loves him regardless of his station.