Like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, some of my friends shun novels, historical novels in particular, disapproving of them as not being real history. As a writer of historical fiction who strives for authenticity, I roll my eyes.
Novels are after all an art form, with writers throwing words at the page like paint at a canvas and hoping they will stick. Would anyone complain at the deliberate historical inaccuracies in Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire?
There are a few historians who, writing for a wider audience, manage to inform and entertain simultaneously. But many, writing for a more serious or academic readership, don’t try to entertain. In a previous blog I wrote about ‘bringing the dead to life’. It’s a big part of why I write, certainly a huge part of why I write fiction set in the past. I want readers to be entertained and soak up a few facts at the same time. ‘As a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down’ to quote Mary Poppins.
I recently watched Anatomy of a Scandal, a tv series about a corrupt politician who justifies his lies by saying he has stuck to the ‘core truth’. Maybe that’s what I, and other historical novelists, are trying to achieve. If we omit some facts, manipulate others and mix in a large dollop of pure fantasy, known as the plot, we are still trying to convey some core truth about life in a historical period.
Most novelists specialise in one or two particular times and places. I must admit there is an advantage to this. Having spent as long on the research as writers of contemporary fiction spend on writing the first draft of a full length novel, there is a strong incentive to stick with the same period! And the same country. This is not true of all novelists, but I have a strong preference for visiting the places I write about. Setting scenes inside Warwick Castle and Oxford Castle for example as I did in The Welsh Linnet, I felt compelled to visit them to capture the atmosphere. It is just not possible from viewing online.
During Melbourne’s lengthy lock down last year, we bought a house on Zoom. The real estate website had a selection of photos and a short video. Our buyers’ agent walked around it talking to us while he filmed. But it was only when we were released from captivity and able to explore our new home in person, that we discovered what the house felt like.
I should point out that not every novelist has this particular compulsion with place. Erica Robuck’s novel about Virginia Hall, The Invisible Woman, written during Covid, was successfully completed without Robuck setting foot in France. I, on the other hand, am having great difficulty finalising the manuscript of my second novel The Tawny Sash, completed during Covid. This is because I have not yet been able to get on a plane to visit Ebrington in Gloucestershire where a section of the story is set!
Immersing ourselves in a world that is part fact, part fantasy sometimes throws up unexpected ‘core truths’. Well known historian Jessie Childs recently published a book about my favourite civil war site, Basing House. Since my copy of The Siege of Loyalty House has not yet arrived in Australia, I have not read it, but the introduction mentions a wedding during the siege. I wonder if it is the wedding I imagined in Welsh Linnet? Stranger things have happened on my writing journey.