Robert Harris had not intended to write fiction. He was, however, always meant to write about politics, choosing to tackle an essay on why he disliked Sir Alec Douglas-Home as a child while his classmates scribbled a few paragraphs about their summer holidays. By the age of thirty, he’d become the political editor of The Observer.
Around his career, Harris was writing a book about the forged Hitler diaries (Selling Hitler) when he came across some droning monologues in which the dictator set out his plans for the world after he’d won the war. Harris thought it could be an intriguing subject for another non-fiction book but his project was about to take a turn which would change his life.
When fact became fiction
Harris had an idea to write the new book unconventionally, as if the world Hitler had envisioned actually existed. The idea was a good one but, when he started writing, the book felt sterile. It needed characters. Harris realised, if he was going to explore the concept and answer all the questions it would throw up, rather than be real, the cast would need to be largely imaginary. He would need to enter the world of fiction.
Initially, when he began work on Fatherland, Harris was excited. He could do anything in this invented world. It was like an incredible part of his mind was turned on for the first time.
It would be easy to look at the success of the resulting novel, Fatherland, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and think Harris could not have had any doubt about his idea as he was writing. It was a great one. Highly original in its time.
The reality, however, was different.
Overcoming writer’s doom
Facing endless possibility was daunting. Harris became overwhelmed by the options and, feeling utterly defeated, abandoned the book for over a year. It didn’t help that, around this time, the fall of the Berlin Wall was all over the news and Harris wondered if anyone would ever want to read an alternative story about a unified Germany in a novel when they could see reality on television.
On reflection, though, he now recognises this as the doom many writers face at some stage of writing a book. Soon, he was to overcome it, picking up the the book once more, albeit without much enthusiasm.
This time, however, Harris realised what the problem was. He didn’t know where the story was going. He assembled all his characters in the room and asked them if they knew what was going to happen. When they didn’t know either, he knew what he needed. A plan. That meant imagining the novel right through to the end and plotting how he would get there. Harris threw out the material he felt would no longer work then kept writing until the book was finished.
Harris is now the author of twelve bestselling novels and his latest book, Munich, allowed him to return to Nazi Germany, this time from the perspective of Chamberlain who he feels is often misrepresented but much easier than Hitler to write about convincingly. Speaking at the Cliveden Literary Festival, he explained how Munich focuses on the relationship between Chamberlin and Hitler as the future of Europe hangs in the balance, bringing to life an event which still resonates today.
Creating convincing characters
One of the challenges of writing historical stories is marrying the facts with the fiction. It’s important to do research and engage with characters sympathetically. Although appeasement – which is key to the story in Munich – failed, Harris said he had to keep in mind that, at the time, people didn’t know how things were going to turn out and were trying to do the right thing. He had to see things from the perspective of the time rather than by looking back today.
Harris also enjoys writing about some of the civil servants who are hidden movers in politics. Often, they can be more interesting because they are doing key things behind the scenes. He particularly loves featuring characters on the fringes of the action, such as photographers and translators, who witness events which change everything.
One of the keys to writing convincing characters, said Harris, is dialogue, especially in political thrillers in which there is a lot of rhetoric. Dialogue needs to take the story forward, reveal something of the character and be interesting. It can be one of the simplest things to write but it can become flaccid and boring too. It’s not good if readers can guess what’s to come either. Keep it intriguing.
Even though Harris knows the value of planning, he warns about following an outline too rigorously if you want your characters to feel real. Let them change and develop. Let twists emerge naturally as you work and adjust your plan to fit around your cast.
Fiction is an exhilarating ride
After writing fiction and non, which is Harris’ favourite? The author showed no hesitation in picking fiction. He loves turning on his imagination and being empathetic, truly getting into the minds of his characters. He said switching to fiction was like switching from a bike to a helicopter. He gets to see the world from great heights, swerving around and seeing action from different perspectives. It’s an exhilarating ride.
Discover more about Cliveden Literary Festival here.
Photo credit: Charlie Hopkinson