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How Do You Trace Back History in Fiction?

How far can you trace back history – either your past, that of yourself and your family, or the past of the city you know best

History is often guided and written by those with power, which is why it is important that various tellers get involved in the recording of it. Most of history comes to us in dry academic books and text books, but sometimes the most effective depiction of history is through fiction. Other authors have spoken about historical fiction on this site: the posts on history and historical fiction by author Janet L Buck and another by Wendy Trimboli come to mind.

Today we have the author of another sub-genre of historical fictipn–the historical mystery–Harini Nagendra.

Harini Nagendra’s The Bangalore Detective’s Club is a charming novel that looks at colonial era through an Indian, feminist lens, and gives us not just a mystery, which is excellent, but also a flavor of those times from the point of view of a woman, and the various social issues that beset that age.

She’s here to speak about accurately depicting history: the India of a hundred years ago. Take it away, Harini!

I’m often asked why I chose to set my first fiction novel in a time period that lies a hundred years in the past. The answer lies in my experiences from my day job. I’m a professor at a university in Bangalore. I run a large research program, do my own research, write books and popular articles, and teach about issues of sustainability – climate change, biodiversity, environmental justice, and how to prevent the future collapse of the world. These are somewhat dismal areas that can be so depressing that many people prefer to turn away from them – and who can blame them? As a writer and teacher, I knew what we needed was a hook – something that would draw people in to reading about these issues, and then get them on the road to self-discovery and action.

History turned out to be that hook. When I started an article or a class with a story from an old map, a centuries-old inscription, a song of the lake that documented old conflicts and celebrations, it captured people’s attention. We live busy lives, in which we are habituated to the contemporary. Way too many gadgets and tasks compete for our attention, along with children, pets, work lives and so much else. But almost everyone is interested in the past. History and heritage speak to us in a way that the present simply fails to do.

Given this experience, setting my first fiction book in a historical setting was a natural choice. I had originally set the Bangalore Detectives Club, which features a feisty young woman protagonist as the lead sleuth, in the 1890s. But my agent, Priya Doraswamy – who is also, like me, an old Bangalorean – suggested I move it to the 1920s. That was absolutely the right move, as I realized as soon as I plunged into the edits.

The 1920s is a fascinating period, and it’s certainly not an accident that so many classic Golden Age detective novels are set in this time. In this period, between the two World Wars, the women of Bangalore began to step out of their homes and enter the public sphere, demanding the right to study, work, vote, and be treated as equals – as they did in many cities across the world. The 1920s is also a time when Indian demands for independence from colonial rule were also force. Setting my novel in this time period helped my sleuth, Kaveri, hone her detective skills, and snoop for clues in the old-fashioned way rather than relying on technology.

There’s a flip side, as there almost always is. Research into the past, into history, isn’t easy. Even though I’ve gathered academic research material on old Bangalore for over 15 years, I have still needed to do additional research to write The Bangalore Detectives Club. Here are five sources I found especially useful to hunt out history, and its fascinating elements.

  1. Old newspapers. These are a treasure house of fascinating stories. For instance, when Edward, Prince of Wales, visited India in 1921-22, the Congress Party called for a total boycott. There were protests across the country. This is fertile ground for a writer to plan future mysteries, amidst the backdrop of conflict and violence.
  2. Photographs and paintings. From objects of great beauty, including gorgeous saris, magnificent sets of jewelry and lush brocade tapestries and rugs, to testimonials of violence – mounted heads of bison and deer, tiger and lion skins, and carvings from elephant tusks and animal bones – photographs and paintings provide the bit of detail that a writer can use to make a setting come alive.
  3. Oral histories, and memories of the past. My mother, who was born in 1937, tells fascinating stories about her grandmothers, born in the late 20th century, and I drew on many of these as inspiration to develop the characters of various women featured in my books. Memories of my own grandmothers are also sharp in my head. My paternal grandmother’s struggle for education inspired me to write about Kaveri, who loves mathematics. Conversations with my husband’s aunt, who went swimming in the Madras Club in a sari in the 1930s, gave me the idea for the opening of my book, when Kaveri dons a nine-yard sari to swim in the Century Club – and gets fascinated by the swimming costumes that she sees other young women wearing.
  4. Administrative documents. Old gazettes, ledger files and administrative reports can be daunting to go through, filled with pages of data and correspondence about budgets, personnel, and legal niceties. Buried in the mass of data, they contain very interesting nuggets of information – such as the fact that the hospitals in Bangalore, where Kaveri’s husband Ramu works, had recently opened a separate hospital for women, for which they had imported a Winternitz electric bath. I was curious to know what that was, and when I found out that it was a water cure treatment used by wealthy ladies in Europe and the US to reverse signs of aging, I knew I had to include it in the book.
  5. Maps. I adore old maps, and my home office has a wall covered with maps of Bangalore, from the 1880s to the modern day. I used these maps to plot the routes that Kaveri and Ramu took to get across Bangalore, using various modes of transport – on foot, in a bullock cart, an elegant horse-drawn Victoria carriage, and Kaveri’s favourite mode of transport – her beloved Model T Ford! I was thrilled, naturally, when my publishers suggested we include an inset map of Bangalore in the book, embellishing it with gorgeous 1920s Art Deco style fonts and motifs.

In the end, it’s relatively easy to track down facts, figures and numbers from historical records. Using these to breathe life into a dusty setting, and to develop the soul of a good novel, is much harder. In addition to the sources I list above, I have drawn on many other kinds of information, including letters, biographies, cook books, diaries, even old songs and music!

How far can you trace back history – either your past, that of yourself and your family, or the past of the city you know best? Where would you go to, for information you can use to bring history alive to a new reader – to someone who doesn’t know you or the place you’re from? 

My lit crime novel, The Blue Bar will be out soon with Thomas & Mercer. It is already available for preorders. Add it to Goodreads or pre-order it to make my day.
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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • I saved this to read over again, since I write historical fiction, myself. For my current WIP, my historical search started at a small. regional museum. I got a tour from the museum president and was allowed to take as many photos of the exhibit as I liked. It was far more engaging and inspiring than any textbook. Now, I think that’s how I’ll always start my historical research.

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Good luck with your WIP, Rebecca. Photographs are the best, most immersive way to get a sense of context and place. I wish there were color photos of Bangalore from the 1920s – to get the saris, jewelry and fabrics – I still have to imagine that bit. What period do you write in?

  • DutchIl says:

    Thank you for sharing!!.. I always enjoy fiction with a touch of reality… your dedication speaks volumes about your determination for accuracy and the book should be a interesting read, indeed!.. best of luck with your dreams… 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May the dreams you hold dearest
    Be those which come true
    May the kindness you spread
    Keep returning to you
    (Irish Saying)

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Thank you! I really appreciate the good wishes. And this is such a lovely saying!

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti and Harini – I’ve been trying to comment … sometimes they take, others not … I’ll try again. I’m lucky I have a number of books regarding part of my back-story and I could fairly easily concoct other aspects … particularly knowing the settings. But obviously I’d go to the local archives to add things in … I’ve picked up a great many ideas from blogging.

    Harini – this sounds really intriguing … congratulations on the release and I hope a series of stories to come … good luck – cheers Hilary

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Thanks Hilary – blogging to learn more about your character and times is a great idea, and one that I must try. Good luck with your writing too.

  • Sonia Dogra says:

    Hi Damyanti
    Thanks so much for bringing Harini here. I’ve heard so much about The Bangalore Detective Club but I had no idea it’s historical fic. It goes straight into my reading list. In fact, I am so curious to know how much time did Harini take to complete this one. And so many other questions I have in mind.

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Hi Sonia – great to hear from you, and I hope you enjoy The Bangalore Detectives Club! It took me 13 years to write this book, mainly because it was my first in this genre – but I’m now writing one a year. Book 2 in the series, Murder Under a Red Moon, will be out in March 2023.

  • Making a historical context for a novel requires more time in research than it does to write the novel 🙂

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Hi Ian… yes indeed, it does! I was fortunate in having already done a great deal of the background historical research for my academic work, but otherwise it would have been even harder. It’s such fun though, digging into the archives – never a dull day

  • Jemi Fraser says:

    I’m always so impressed by people who write historical fiction! So much attention to detail is required – this would be my downfall!
    Great resources to use to keep the accuracy along with the story!!

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Thank you Jemi – fortunately it’s a lot of fun as well, though there is always the danger of diving into a rabbit hole and emerging for light a few days later 🙂

  • Thank you both.
    My own family history is sadly lacking, and history (particularly family history) is something that fascinates me.

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Family history fascinates me too… there is very little available from my part of India in general, and more so for women. Occasionally, someone puts out a self-published book on the story of their grandmother’s life or something like that, and I love it when that happens – as it really helps those past times come to life.

  • The 1920’s was definitely a good time to set the story. So much prosperity in the world at that time. As you said though, a lot of research involved.

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      I’m very glad I moved the story from the 1890s to the 1920s, Alex – and I’m now discovering fascinating connections between women suffragists in India and Sri Lanka, and the UK and USA in the 1920s, which makes me even more happy to have selected these times. They are so rich in possibility. But yes, a lot of research involved…

  • This book sounds delightful. It brought to mind the #1 Ladies Detectives Agency. Loved that series, and the TV show. I couldn’t remember that name so Googled it–Harini’s book is getting a lot of press!

    • Harini Nagendra says:

      Thank you Jacqui! I love The #1 Ladies Detective Agency too. One of my favourites – and now my daughter, who just discovered the series, is racing through it.

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