I really enjoy historical and mystery novels so one book I am looking forward to reading is Tessa Harris’ Secrets In The Stones, the sixth novel in the Dr Thomas Silkstone series. As part of the blog tour Tessa has joined me on my blog to write about the challenges of writing historical fiction…
From fact to fiction
Historical fiction with real-life characters at its core is enjoying a heyday thanks to brilliant exponents of the genre such as Hilary Mantel, Sarah Waters and C.J. Samsom. What was once the Cinderella of the bookshelf, consigned to a dusty corner, is now being allowed to flourish in the dazzle of mainstream reviews and awards.
Yet it’s not easy to stick to historical fact without sometimes sacrificing the pace of the plot, or the twist at the end. It’s a bit like negotiating a minefield that’s already been swept. As long as you keep to the tried and tested path you’ll be safe. That’s to say if you stick to the basic facts, you should reach the end safely. But if you stray – beware! If you’re not blown to pieces by eagle-eyed critics, then there’ll still be readers out there keen to take pot shots at you.
Some of our greatest writers have ventured on this perilous course. Think Shakespeare (Julius Caesar and all his historical plays), Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) and Tolstoy (War and Peace), not to mention Robert Graves, Colm Toibin and Pat Barker. Combining fact and fiction is nothing new, but it’s always been looked at with some suspicion. Virginia Woolf, for example, deplored Lytton Strachey’s original decision to garner the facts with invented passages in his book, ‘Elizabeth and Essex’. ‘Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible,’ she told him.
Of course most historical novelists have no desire to ride roughshod over the facts and many are, indeed, respected scholars as well as writers of fiction. Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory both delve into original sources. In fact the latter struck literary gold when she took the trouble to rummage through the archives herself to find a tiny footnote in an original document. It stated that Henry VIII had to seek dispensation for his marriage to Anne Boleyn, not only to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, but also because he had been sleeping with Anne’s sister. The result was The Other Boleyn Girl, a best-seller and a successful film.
Yet all these writers would probably tell you that they are storytellers first and historians second. Take, for example, Bernard Cornwell, with 50 novels to his name. Most of them are historical, ranging from the early 19th century Sharpe series to his latest ‘1356’, set at the time of the battle of Poitiers in the Middle Ages. In a recent interview he said: “If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician Reformation, then write a history book but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key.”
And there’s the rub. There are an awful lot of (bestselling) writers who don’t let facts get in the way of a good story. (Mr Cornwell, I hasten to add, is meticulous in his research and is certainly not one of them.) And yet I would argue that if you can stick to the facts, then your story may well be all the better for it because, as the saying goes, truth is very often stranger than fiction.
History will always be open to interpretation, whether it is written as fact or incorporated into fiction. No matter how objective the writer tries to be, there will also be insurmountable obstacles to impartiality. Events and characters will inevitably be filtered through our contemporary lenses and there will be habitual doubters and detractors, just as there are apologists. One writer’s hero is another one’s villain.
So that’s why I believe it’s so important to work to ground rules in historical fiction. There are basic facts which should be rigidly adhered to, otherwise populist, fictional histories in print or on the screen can be taken as fact. I recently watched the incomparable Johnnie Depp in From Hell about Jack the Ripper. The film is based on a graphic novel of the same title, by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. That, in turn, was based largely on a book by Stephen Knight’s, Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. The plot centres around a royal conspiracy. It makes for a great story, but it’s certainly not historically accurate. Yet anyone unfamiliar with the events of 1888 may not seek to question the veracity of the plot.
So what can be done? You either stick to the facts or you make sure that you tell your reader that you are bending the truth in your author’s note. That way the writer can set the record straight, if necessary. If liberties have been taken with locations, for example, for the sake of the narrative, then the writer can hold their hands up and say so.
An American university lecturer contacted me recently to say that she’d told all her students to read my novel “The Lazarus Curse” as background study to her course on slavery in the 18th century. That certainly put a smile on my face. Surely getting someone interested in your particular period is one of the over-arching goals of any historical novelist? It would be great to think that my novels might make even one reader set off into the minefield of history without worrying too much about treading on a mine.
Tessa Harris’s sixth novel in the Dr Thomas Silkstone Mystery series, Secrets in the Stones, published by Constable, is out now!