I came late to writing historical fiction – in fact late to writing altogether.
History was what I knew best but there were a number of conventions associated with historical fiction that I did not like very much.
The idea of fictional history where one twisted the events and timeline to suit the story really didn’t appeal to me at all. The history was just too important to me. So if I was going to write historical fiction at all then whatever history I included would have to be as accurate as possible.
Another, equally important consideration on my mind was readership. When I started writing, historical fiction tended to fall into one of two categories: historical romance, often written by women for women, and historical action, often written by men for men. Now I know this was not exclusively the case but it was pretty much so, as is evidenced by the number of female writers who used only their initials when writing books with a lot of action in them to disguise the fact that they were women. Obviously the publishing premise was that none of us have the remotest idea about the opposite sex!
I found this convention rather irritating and I set out to write a book with three main protagonists: two women and one man. There would be plenty of action – no holds barred – but it wasn’t only the men who took part in it. There was some romance – in fact several love stories; but though romance might sometimes drive the story along, it was not the main theme.
Overall there were as many female characters as male since my observation is that there are a lot of both in the world.
There was another historical social convention I wanted to attack: the belief that women in the middle ages had no power, no influence and were simply there to have children – and obviously the bit before that… Now, whilst that might accurately represent the view of the medieval church, it is not in fact how life was. There were plenty of exceptions where women had considerable influence, ran their own businesses, and even commanded men. It seemed important to me that women were given a variety of roles in my stories: most had to conventional to be authentic, but some could be less conventional.
Finally, I wanted to challenge the notion of the lower classes only ever acting in a supporting role. There is a place in the story for the plucky, loyal servant who sacrifices himself in order that the hero can survive but they weren’t all like that! I included the usual suspects: servants, innkeepers, whores, blacksmiths, yes – but I wanted them to have their own stories too, interwoven with their social superiors rather than just acting as stereotypes.
I wanted therefore at least a little bit of social depth. How did the actions of the powerful impact on the lives of the not so powerful? I wanted subplots which dealt with their concerns – often very different from their masters – or mistresses! Some were loyal but others were grumpy and uncooperative despite – or because of – their lowly station in life. In fact the whole idea of characters being completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was something I was keen to move away from.
The period covered by my first book Feud, 1459-61, was by far the bloodiest time of the Wars of the Roses and I felt that the reader needed to grasp exactly what that meant, so there is full-on action in several battles. But there were also the effects of battles which are less frequently dealt with.
At the time I was writing Feud, I was intrigued by the discovery of some skeletons near the site of the battle of Towton. In itself, I suppose, it is not that surprising to find some corpses near an old battlefield but it was one skeleton in particular that interested me. One of the corpses revealed that this particular soldier, though he died at Towton, had received a grievous facial injury at some time well before that. It set me to thinking about battlefield surgery and how injured combatants dealt with life afterwards – and clearly, in some cases, continued to be soldiers.
One consequence of all my good intentions was that I ended up with a legion of characters. With hindsight, I might have reduced the cast list a bit… but fortunately during the Wars of the Roses I could indulge in quite a few casualties…
The danger in writing a story to appeal to both sexes was that I would alienate all readers: perhaps there was not enough romance, or too much action, or simply too many characters! My antidote for all of that was to make the pace of the story as fast as possible with a lot of dialogue and very few lengthy descriptions. I wanted the reader to keep reading – to be prepared to wade through the carnage – or the tender embraces – to find out what happened to the characters next.
I am not suggesting that my series of books will appeal to everyone because I’m certain they will not – and that is as it should be. However, I have had enough direct contact with readers now – six years after I first published Feud – to be sure that, whatever flaws my debut novel had, it does have thousands of readers of both sexes who have enjoyed it.
Since I began writing – some ten to twelve years ago now – the face of historical fiction has changed, as society has changed. But, more importantly, publishing has changed too. The books ‘out there’ for readers now are no longer channelled only through traditional publishing and so there is a much greater variety of stories and sub-genres available.
My sixth, and most recent, Wars of the Roses novel, The Blood of Princes, is set in one of the most turbulent years in the whole of English history – 1483. And yes, it deals with Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, but, like all the books which preceded it, it is a story of a family and its men, women, children, servants, men at arms, etc. They are thrust into a time of crisis and each is trying, in his own way, to emerge from it unscathed.
As the blurb tells you: “… members of the battle-scarred Elder family are drawn, one by one, into his conspiracy. Soon they are mired so deep in the murky underbelly of London society, that there seems no hope of escape from the tangle of intrigue and murder.”
But don’t worry, they’re getting used to it!
I’m not claiming here to have single-handedly broken any mould, just explaining what inspired me to write in the way I have. Now, as I write my seventh book, Echoes of Treason, the principles I adopted at the start are still there – though hopefully my writing has improved over the years.
[Note: This post first appeared in September 2018 as a guest post on Mary Anne Yarde’s popular blog: Myths, Legends, Books & Coffee Pots which you can find here.]
This is a great and informative post – it’s great to see someone trying to tackle the stereotypical novels of historical fiction. Histfic has so much potential, and whilst there is a place and market for the battle/romance novels, I’ve always wanted historical fiction to be as varied as real life was!
Excellent post. Derek.