Bad historical fiction is rarely hard to spot. Bosoms will heave, troths will be pledged and feisty heroines will deplore the lot of women centuries before the invention of feminism.
Good historical fiction requires all the usual novelistic skills – an alchemic mash of plot, character and style. But it is also a genre with its own peculiar demands: the weave of facts and made-up stuff. Everyone writing in this genre has fielded the question – where does the historical end and the fictional begin?
I write and review historical fiction. I am immersed in the stuff. My days are spent alone in a room pretending to be a Viking; my evenings are spent reading other modern grown-ups pretending to be Vikings. It’s a strange enough way to make a living. But like any profession, it comes with its own standards. There is no law that states the precise quantity of fact to fiction that must make up a HistFic book. But talk to (almost) any good, well read writer of HistFic and they will tell you the same thing: your responsibility to the history is an absolute.
History itself is, of course, not an absolute. It is open to interpretation, to wilful misrepresentation, to wishful projection and to misunderstandings. Our job, as writers who attempt to recreate the past, is to render it as accurately as we can. First, we have to take a view on a period – on its politics, its social make-up, the hopes and fears of its people – as a historian would. Only then can we borrow the historian’s threads to weave our own stories.
We can bend things to fit the plot. In Lamentation, the recent outing by CJ Sansom’s Tudor sleuth, Catherine Parr finds herself caught in a plot involving murder and the theft of a book. This, readers, is fiction. But Sansom’s rendering of Parr, and the beliefs which were in the (real) book, are all true to his interpretation of the complicated, violent end to Henry’s reign.
In Angus Donald’s The King’s Assassin, the penultimate in his brilliant ‘Robin Hood meets The Sopranos’ series, Robin is involved in the creation of the Magna Carta. Um, No. But, again, Robin’s involvement makes sense because Donald is so good on the real political atmosphere which seamlessly props up his plot.
Plots tend to be neat and progressive; history tends to be messy and chaotic. The demands of the former can, sometimes, threaten the demands of the latter. This is the question most HistFic writers ask themselves: in reading my book, will the reader come away with an enriched knowledge or a distorted picture?
Why does it matter? Arguably, it doesn’t. But most of us came to writing HistFic through the love of history. If you love something, you try not to screw it up. I came to history through fiction. To Greece through Mary Renault, to Rome through Rosemary Sutcliffe and Robert Graves, to the Napoleonic Wars through Patrick O’Brian. They might have played with history – did Livia really murder all the possible heirs to Augustus’s crown as Graves posited? Unlikely. But these greats were true to the essence of the history, to the endless tango of themes and characters which shape events.
My new book, The Winter Isles (buy here!) , is set in twelfth century Scotland, at a time of perilously few written records. It tells the story of Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles. He appears in the myths of his ancestors, the Donald Clans, the MacDonnells and the MacDougalls. He is in some of the records of the period, surfacing in a chronicle, or a tax book, only to disappear back into the myth.
At first, I thought it would be liberating to be freed from the shackles of actual facts. My first book, Treason’s Daughter, was set during the English Civil War, which is very well documented. Almost every sentence written of that book sent me scurrying to the sources to check for authenticity.
The Winter Isles offered no such anxiety. Put simply, I had to make up more stuff. The pendulum swung from fact to fiction and I was anxious in a different sense. Was I getting too far away from the history?
The problems were at their most acute on the social history side – transport and gender relations, and all the little details that comprise the experience of living. My only solution was to be as true as I could to the wider thematic atmosphere: the clash and meld of Gaelic, Norse and Anglo-Norman cultures; the tribal life of warrior culture; the experience of living on the wild and windy West coast of Scotland. If there are details which are wrong, I am sorry. I have faith, however, in the broad sweep of my book. But the best HistFic is a dance between writer and reader. I’ve done my bit, the rest is up to you.
The Winter Isles is available from all good bookshops and online here
To read Antonia’s thoughts on writing her first book, Treason’s Daughter, click here