Fiction writers are essentially liars. Historical fiction writers are thieves as well.
Readers of fiction enter a deal whereby they knowingly suspend disbelief, and believe what they are told. Readers of historical fiction do not have to suspend disbelief, but they knowingly accept stolen goods – unless the tale has been legitimately inherited as in Karen Charlton’s Catching the Eagle. Tales such as Charlton’s, however, are a rarity: most historical fiction writers have to acquire their stories by other means. Not that they don’t put in a lot of work to uncover their devious conspiracies, cunning plots and nuggets of information – they do. They have to. There’s an awful lot of digging and searching for real gems before a historical fiction writer can put plume to paper.
And that’s just the start of it. Once the story has been ‘acquired’ it has to be cleaned-up, polished, then located appropriately in a genuine setting using a vocabulary fitting for its epoch and cast. Anyone can write a story, we start at elementary school, but writing a historical fiction is much more than writing a story; it’s combining aspects of the truth into a form acceptable to the contemporary reader. Compelling content is vital, but the form in which the tale is told is crucial. Think about the hairstyles in period movies. One can tell immediately when a period movie was made by the actors’ hairstyles and make-up. Think about Liz Taylor’s eyes for her Cleopatra, or Rhett Butler’s WW2 pencil moustache in Gone with the Wind. Sometimes movies are made because the fashions are similar – low-cut dresses and Hollywood’s version of late 18th century heroines, for example. Then there’s the period movie that’s made because the values of a past epoch have been re-interpreted to coincide with contemporary issues. British film-makers during WW2 brought images of indomitable English men and women with God on their side to the screen in Henry V and films about Good Queen Bess, whose country would never yield to foreigners. Queen Bess was roused once again during the wealthy late 60s – triumphant England: glorious Britain. Times have changed; those days are gone so we’ve recently been treated to a television series on Henry VIII’s corrupt court and religious issues. Hardly an accident of timing, many people on both sides of the Atlantic are currently very concerned about the problems of government, seemingly pointless wars and religion.
These are all the things the historical fiction writer has to take into account when starting a novel: finding a relevant story that will resonate with the public zeitgeist; creating or re-creating a hero/heroine with flaws and foibles that contemporary readers can relate to; setting the story in an environment that appears genuine but is almost certainly an awful lot cleaner and more hygienic than it was. And after deciding on all this and doing all the relevant research to present factual details in order, the writer then has to choose words carefully: not too modern – ‘How cool is that?’ said the King. ‘Awesome,’ replied the Queen; but not too thee, thou and gadzooks, sirrah to remind readers of struggling through Chaucer or Shakespeare unaided.
So, for those of you still at the thinking stage – do think hard about the demands of a historical novel. All this and more went into The Chosen Man; a story about a charismatic rogue who inflates a financial bubble and leaves his victims to sort out their debts, and a feisty, almost modern girl who literally embarks on an overseas adventure without giving a serious thought to her security or future.
There are other genres, remember. Fantasy offers writing free-style and sci-fi means the world’s your time-machine . . . But if you’re still determined to have a go at historical fiction and you want any advice, or just want to share your ideas, contact me.