Why Historical Fiction?

In this session, Whitbread award-winning novelist Rose Tremain looks at the issues around writing and publishing historical fiction. (From BBC – Get Writing [here ]).

Why Historical Fiction?
I believe that the ultimate goal of historical fiction is to evoke the past and its characters within that past in such a way as to create a ‘universal story’, one with which the readers of today (no less than the readers of tomorrow) can identify. The prime reason for setting a novel in history is to escape the confines and dictates of a narrow contemporary realism in order to explore the big themes of existence, such as love and betrayal, poverty and riches, success and failure, youth and age, war and peace, truth and lies, honour, friendship and death. Many great writers, including Dickens, Shakespeare and Tolstoy understood that novels or dramas set in past time can be every bit as powerful and ‘relevant’ to contemporary readers as those exploring a familiar quotidian scene.

We live in an age where the diversity and absolute strangeness of human life are more accessible to us than in any previous era, through television and the internet.

Our world vision is immense. That which is ‘strange but true’ – the thing which has actually been lived or done – amazes us because we then go on to ask ourselves whether we could have lived through it or done it or been as this or that person has been. That which is invented – though it may make us understand our lives better or differently, move us, terrify us or make us angry or make us laugh – doesn’t invite or challenge us to attempt identification of this particular kind.

I can’t see that the aim of historical fiction is necessarily to tell ‘true stories’, yet sometimes it does do this very successfully. Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, for example, tells the ‘true story’ of the life of Marilyn Monroe, but Oates’s understanding and evocation/invention of Marilyn’s personality is so powerful that we feel we are learning a more substantial ‘truth’ about Marilyn from this ‘novel’ than from any biography of her that has been published so far. However, re-telling a very well-documented life – say Lord Byron’s life or Winston Churchill’s life – is not the mode in which historical fiction very often succeeds as important and serious work.

My growing perception is that readers (both men and women) love good historical fiction and one only has to consider the huge popular success achieved by the work of Sebastian Faulks, Louis de Bernieres and Robert Harris to see that this is so. However, in the current climate of fiction writing, where critics attach huge importance to everything contemporary, many reviewers (and this probably includes members of prize juries) seem to believe that historical novels – no matter who the author may be – are inherently less important than contemporary novels. The notion that the best historical novels aspire to a universal and timeless truth seems very often to be overlooked. Publishers, therefore, have to balance reader approval against possible critical disapproval when commissioning these books.


Going About It
If you have no feeling for where the drama is within real events – however dryly presented – than you probably shouldn’t be writing historical fiction. But of course the thing which will feel dramatic to one writer will feel inert to another. Some writers are attracted by the big set pieces of history: the battles, the plagues and fires and revolutions. Others find inspiration in private sufferings or domestic scandal. We will all be drawn to those happenings out of which we can create our own story and around which we can weave dramatic invention.The engendering ‘nugget’ for Music & Silence was the discovery that King Christian IV housed his orchestra in the wine-cellar and, obsessed as he was by a search for the miraculous, engineered a system of pipes and ducts through which their music would float ‘invisibly and miraculously’ into the State Rooms above. I immediately understood that this image could serve as a fine metaphor for the opposing states, the yin and yang around which human life is constructed. But this story of the musicians and the cellar has been known for hundreds of years, so the question of why this spoke to me and has not spoken – as far as I know – to any other writer, remains a mystery. The Past is a huge and many-roomed mansion from which each writer will select one small yet priceless object.

Most writers of historical fiction base their work on ‘original characters’. Onto the stage of the work may strut some well-known figures of the past, but these, ideally, have a relatively minor role to play – just as Hamlet has a minor role to play in Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The central drama is most often moved forward by the characters invented by the writer and it is for them that we feel hope, dread, worry, anger, sympathy – and so forth.

The huge pitfall of having as a central character a major figure from the past is the risk of awakening in the reader what I have termed ‘biographical unease’; that is to say, at a certain point in the narrative, the reader will almost certainly stand back and ask himself whether he wouldn’t prefer to be reading a bona fide biography of the subject, in which he would be able to distinguish truth from invention. If or when this question is answered in the affirmative by the reader, the novel has failed.

There might be key moments in the most famous of lives- the Churchills or Byrons – where the interaction of invented characters could reveal a hitherto unseen truth about such moments and the way these people acted, but again, biographical unease has, somehow, to be kept at bay – as Oates keeps it at bay in Blonde – by brilliant and satisfyingly believable invention.

Writing in the style of the period of your setting is also an option, and is known as pastiche. Pastiche is difficult. It’s also potentially irritating for the reader, because it draws attention to itself so noisily that the story may get buried under all its blarney. Few authors do pastiche very well, Peter Ackroyd being a notable exception. His Last Testament of Oscar Wilde pastiches Wilde very wittily. In general, I would say that it very often fails.

It’s perhaps important to remember here, however, that the language of ordinary people in 17th Century England, for example, is amazingly inventive and expressive. (It just wasn’t, you know, like, the blogging stuff of, ‘like, now…okay?’) So if your novel is going to be set in the 17th century, it may be worth striving for a kind of colourful texture to the language which has something of that anarchic expressiveness. I think what needs to be done realistically and truthfully is your research into the language of the day. When you have a feeling for this, then you will be in a position to decide whether to try to pastiche it, attempt some coloration which mirrors it, or ignore its cadences altogether. But it might be worth remembering that bad pastiche is as embarrassing as bad sex. Both, potentially, give historical novels a bad name and a bad press.


Artistic License
I think change should be made on the basis of knowledge and not on the basis of ignorance. If your understanding of a time and the characters within that time is profound, then you will be able to judge what can be changed and what should be left exactly as your research tells you it was.In my novel, Music & Silence, set in Denmark in the 1620s, I changed the dates of certain important happenings in the life of King Christian IV because I wanted the reader (and the invented protagonist, Peter Claire) to enter the story at a moment of crisis, when everything is going wrong for the King and for Denmark. This feeling of crisis is augmented by placing within the two-year time frame of the book certain events and decisions which came earlier and/or later in King Christian’s actual life. But not until I was familiar with the shape of the real life did I consider myself able to make date changes or indeed any other kind of important alteration/invention. Nobody seems to have been troubled by the date changes, not even Danish readers.

I conclude therefore that dates may sometimes be changed very slightly – if the reasons for doing so are dramatically sound. And if dates may be sometimes changed, then probably almost anything can be changed, but with the caveat that the work alchemised out of the real history must feel as real as it.

Shakespeare simplified and played about with the life of King Richard III, but the dramatic intensity of that play and the integrity – as a character – Shakespeare gives to Richard make it feel like the real life of that king and it is upon this play and not upon the more accurate historical accounts that many people base their knowledge of these events.

Fictional characters – whether in historical or contemporary-based novels – are often amalgams of one or two ‘real’ people, to which may be added a brand new particularity that relies upon pure invention. As stated above, I favour giving the prime roles in historical fiction to the invented characters, making the book their story.


Creating Characters
You need to get to know the real people – from research of all kinds. This would ideally include looking at paintings and/or photographs as well as studying written material. I also believe that on-the-ground research in the landscape or city where the real people had their lives and where the invented people are going to be placed is invaluable. Such landscapes will have changed in measure with their historical distance from us, (the cities especially so) but tiny aspects of them may remain much as they once were. All of this pre-writing research leads to understanding and only when you understand a place and time and the real people living there can ‘respect’ be properly given. But upon respect must lie invention.Once you understand an historical figure such as, say, Charles II, you have to make him your Charles II, the Charles II who is entirely believable and truthful in his own terms for your particular story. This will eventually entail respect of a different kind – for the character you have created in the first quarter of the novel and who must, from then on, act with the integrity you have given him and not suddenly say or do something which betrays it.

I believe that it’s impossible to know everything about a character in advance of the journey upon which you’re going to send him or her. Novels are journeys and the ending of those journeys and the behaviour of those embarked on them can’t necessarily be foreseen. They can be planned, but often the plans have to be changed.

The character on page forty-nine may not be the person you thought he/she was going to be on page one. But fiction writers have a duty towards logic, consistency and psychological truth. Characters are beings and we should strive to understand them early on, as we strive to understand our real parents, siblings, friends and lovers.

This understanding presupposes knowing answers to some key questions: who or what makes them happy? What do they fear above all else? Are they by nature timid or courageous? Are they self-deluding? These and hundred other such questions are likely to be prime. And I think they should be asked early in the planning stage of a book. Then, around each character may ideally arise what I call an ‘image system’: a series of actual or metaphorical images which help to define character X from character Y.

As an example of this, in my novel Sacred Country, mainly set in the 1950s, the character Estelle (mother of the transsexual protagonist, Mary) is a woman who shirks responsibility, who seeks escape from reality in various forms and who experiences an almost perpetual existential sadness, which eventually leads her to voluntary incarceration in a mental hospital. The image system I created around Estelle is monochromatic because the colour, diversity and richness of the world are more or less lost on her. She stares at her reflection in the grey river. She knits a grey square. She watches black and white TV. She inhabits a white room in the mental home and stares at a white sky. She imagines that everything in the past is ‘safe’. She finds solace in counting numbers on a page and stones in the walls of a church. Her face becomes very pale.

I believe that all of these images are right for Estelle and help fix her in the reader’s mind. It thus seems clear to me that if you can really visualise how characters move through their internal and external landscape and what images surround this movement, then you are halfway to knowing them.

A note on defamation and sensitivity: you can’t defame the dead in law, but you can cause great anguish to the living by doing so in fact. It has been wittily stated that biography ‘has added a new terror to death’ and fiction has, potentially, the same terrorising power. To return to Joyce Carol Oates’s Blonde, this novel presents a picture of Jack Kennedy with which the Kennedy family must have been far from happy. But Kennedy, in this story, becomes the universal embodiment of the male rapaciousness and callousness with which Marilyn had to contend throughout her life. Thus, the scenes with Kennedy have an extraordinary climactic power, succeeding on the page both in moral and artistic terms. This ‘defamation’ of Kennedy is a perfect example of the way an author, Oates, is willing to risk the anguish or wrath of individuals in order to nail a moral wrong.


The Modern Context
It’s important to get the verifiable details of the novel as correct as they can be. Anachronisms and historical blunders muddy the read. They may even cause the reader to lose faith in the author, just as one might lose faith in an actor who keeps fluffing his lines. I advise finding experts in every field covered by the novel to read it before it gets anywhere near proof stage.I think that, in general, anachronisms suggest laziness or ignorance on the part of the author, yet of course they clamour at the gate of a modern consciousness like supplicants, begging to be let in. When you’ve run your personal cliché-watch over the manuscript, I suggest running an anachro-watch. Ask your editor to do the same. We don’t think and speak or pray or swear or dance in the way people did even fifty years ago. Yet our language and thought-patterns have powerful mastery over the way we write.

I have never managed a first draft of an historical novel that was anachro-free. But in subsequent drafts these have been mainly weeded out, although I still get letters from triumphant readers who have found an obstinate residue of them. The deliberate anachronism is amusing to attempt, but it has to be very cleverly placed and very certain of its own function in the narrative to justify its inclusion.

Our moral landscape is formed by the age in which we live. We will make modern judgements whether the author writes in a modern voice or attempts the language of the past. We see Shakespeare with a modern eye. Certain of his plays will feel more relevant to us now than others, but in twenty years’ time it will probably not be the same ones. The key decision to be made before embarking on any novel set in history is whether the story you want to tell is one which feels both timely and universal. Then you can tell it in whatever voice feels right for it and through which it can be developed and sustained.

Suggested Reading by Rose Tremain:
Research for Writers by Ann Hoffman : Practical advice for writers of fiction and non-fiction on hunting down the details to create your story. Information on search engines and e-research in the new edition is excellent.

Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing by Anthony Brundage : Aimed particularly at history students, but useful for the historical fiction writer to get his bearings in discovering new worlds.

Archangel by Robert Harris : Stalin’s rediscovered ‘lost notebook’ combines fact with invention seamlessly, and is all too believable in this historical thriller.

Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd : A fictionalised account of the 18th century architect Nicholas Hawksmoor is interwoven with a contemporary murder mystery. A gritty portrayal of post-plague London with great use of 17th century language.