Historical Fiction Is A Dangerous Business…

I am a writer of historical fiction – there I’ve said it and I know that in doing so I’m asking for trouble. Why? Because historical fiction is a dangerous business.

I should have written crime… or fantasy… or even science fiction. I don’t know what possessed me to choose historical fiction. As an historical fiction writer, I am there to be shot at. It doesn’t matter that I’ve stuck the word ‘fiction’ on the end because that tag ‘historical’ will get me into enough trouble on its own. It’ll lay me open to charges of inaccuracy, bias, incompetence, personality trashing and pretty much the destruction of civilisation as we know it. Just ask Hilary Mantel who, according to one prominent historian, has deliberately perverted history with her portrayal of Thomas Cromwell.

As an historical fiction writer you have to make things up like other fiction writers except that what you make up has to be ‘right’. The trouble is that you can’ t get it ‘right’ because there is no ‘right’. Well, that’s OK then… except that many of your readers think there is.

Everyone – every potential reader – carries around in their head a version of history but unfortunately they don’t all have the same version.

As a simple example…

One reader will ‘know’ that the Roman invasion of Britain was the brutal subjugation of a skilled, resilient people by hard as nails Roman legionaries whose merciless oppression squeezed the life out of Britons so that when, in 410AD, the Romans abandoned the British they left them defenceless and at the mercy of hordes of murderous, invading Saxons.

Whereas another reader will ‘know’ that it was the triumph of highly efficient, civilised Romans over the warring barbarian tribes of Britain who were good at making jewellery and painting their bodies but were otherwise primitive. The Romans brought peace and prosperity to the people and integrated with them so that the Britons continued to see themselves as Roman for generations after the legions left.

The perspective of these two readers about that area of history will be different. All readers bring some historical baggage with them when they read historical fiction. As a rule of thumb, the less they ‘know’, the more they will be inclined to believe what an historical fiction writer has written.

The really odd thing about people’s perceptions of what is historically ‘right’ is that the writer is only really on solid ground when he is writing about semi-mythical figures such as King Arthur. You can write what you like about Arthur because every reader ‘knows’ that Arthur is a hazy figure – as much fantasy as fact. Where there is an accepted historical mystery, then the historical fiction writer is in paradise.

Unfortunately – though you could also argue fortunately – ‘known’ history is not fixed; it is mutable. It is not a wall, it is a tapestry which is the product of myriad threads of historical evidence woven together. Sometimes, especially when we look at the last few hundred years of history,  the tapestry is thick and matted with threads of different weight and colour crossing and recrossing each other, as new evidence or new interpretations cause the fabric of history to be revised.

As we look further back in time,  the evidence bank shrinks and in our tapestry we find that the threads are fewer and coarser, the cloth is thinner. There are threadbare sections  and even a few small holes spanned by only a handful of lonely threads.

Hundreds of years earlier, evidence is even more sparse and there are larger holes in the tapestry where the weave is maintained by only a few tenuous warp threads straining to carry history’s burden alone. These single threads provide little more than hints of what took place, or why and how – and without those threads you have nothing at all.

The historical fiction writer’s task therefore, is difficult. If describing recent centuries he has painstakingly to deconstruct the very thickest of tapestries, whereas the writer who focusses on earlier periods has the opposite problem as he attempts to patch over the holes.

Using Wolf Hall again as an example, Hilary Mantel has focussed on a man whose early life is one of these holes where only a few tantalising threads exist. David Starkey does not recognise Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, but he cannot disprove her interpretation because she has done what the historical fiction writer must do: she has filled in the holes in the weave. What she has put in the void is not history, it is not fact and it is not ‘right’. It is unsupported by the few evidence strands that exist, but it still might be true. Who knows?

The answer, of course, is that nobody actually knows – even the most reputable of historians. As writers we have some responsibilty to our readers not to claim that what we create is  ‘right’ – because it isn’t; it’s fiction – it’s a story! However much we research the period in which we set our stories and however accurate they are in fine supporting detail, what we are writing is still fiction, not history.

Readers on their part should never assume that an historical fiction novel is true. It can’t be,  because it is fiction. The best historical fiction is a good story which excites readers and encourages them to read about the events described, to explore the tapestry of history, to run their fingers over the weave to discover where the original fabric has been recently patched and to explore the frayed edges of the many gaping holes.

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17 Responses to Historical Fiction Is A Dangerous Business…

  1. SJ Foster says:

    I stopped part way through a fantasy novel because the level of detail required to make it work and be plausible was so intense that frankly, i need to go and have a cold shower even now, just thinking about it. There is so much art in what you do as a historical writer. Great Post!

  2. I too write historical fiction. I do my best to draw my narrative into a historical context, but it’s fiction, not historical scholarly research (which is often fiction dressed up to look like science). We write about the what ifs not the what was. If someone is put off by a perceived lack of “accuracy” in my writing, then put it down, go read something else.v

  3. Derek Birks says:

    Yes, it’s interesting though, how much confidence many readers place in the work of the more well known HF authors – and equally how much criticism there is of a supposed “errors”.

  4. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    All history is fiction, but I believe as an historical novelist that it’s my job to strive not for accuracy (impossible) but for authenticity – in terms of lifestyle, setting, prevailing opinions etc and in addition that I shouldn’t deliberately pervert what is known / verifiable about an era. But in a very real sense I am writing about the ‘holes’ referred to above, filling in or fleshing out history and bringing it alive.

  5. Nice post, Derek. Do you remember when we were chatting to Conn Iggulden in the bar at the Harrogate History Festival, we were talking about this very thing. His solution was to fill the gaps ‘intelligently’. Of course to do that, we need to immerse ourselves in the period, into the mentality, the smells, the sights, the tensions, and then give it our best shot…

    • Derek Birks says:

      Yes Alison, despite it being in the bar, I do recall the conversation. I think Conn has it about right and that’s certainly what I’ve tried to do. I think I wrote the post because I feel that HF sometimes ceases to be judged for the story – which remains the most important element.

  6. cavalrytales says:

    Yeah – these other genres would have made life easier. But everyman and his dog write crime, fantasy, romance, horror… Dare to be different, eh?

  7. Derek Birks says:

    I’m with you there.

  8. Lausanne says:

    Thanks for saying all of this. You saved me the trouble (and maybe the flaming arrows aimed at my head!)

  9. Cryssa Bazos says:

    Excellent post. I agree with Margaret that we should strive for authenticity, but too often the story has been sacrificed for ‘historical accuracy’. It’s not uncommon for HF writers to hold back for fear of getting it wrong and the story invariably suffers. Venture bravely into the gap!

  10. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide says:

    So When is it then?

  11. Derek Birks says:

    Ooh, that’s good!

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