Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Speculating from the sources

How can historical fiction illuminate the past in a way that academic history can’t?

Does it reach the parts of history that normal narrative history can’t? Is it a valuable addition to history? Or is it a replacement at a time when history seems to be taught less and less in schools?

At a recent talk in London entitled Greatest Battles, which I mentioned in an earlier post, writers of historical fiction pondered these questions.

Simon Scarrow, author of the Eagle series called historical fiction ‘speculating from the sources.’ He was however at pains to point out how he adhered to the sources, how that made his novel more authentic, in this example his new series of Waterloo novels. He also stressed how important it was to mention any deviations made from published sources or generally accepted views.

Conversely, Saul David, a historian who has recently written a historical novel relished what he called ‘the freedom to go beneath the skin’ of a historical period, something not allowed him in his academic career. He found history to be a loose framework for his fiction rather than a straitjacket.

Where both Scarrow and David agree is in making the story and characters paramount but differed considerably on how much latitude is acceptable in dealing with historical events.

So then how far can you stray from the historical narrative when you’re a historical novelist?

Friday, 13 November 2009

Fighting an Icon

As a historical writer, how do you best portray a battle that has become iconic? How do you peel away its layers of misunderstandings, propaganda and historical inaccuracies?

It was a question raised last night in London at a talk entitled Greatest Battles with the historical novelists Simon Scarrow, Saul David and Patrick Mercer discussing this and many other issues. I’ll write more on what they had to say in a later post but Simon Scarrow in particular talked about the difficulties of writing about a battle, in his case, Waterloo, that most of his readership knows something about and still make it fresh and exciting. For Saul David, writing about the battle of Rorke’s Drift in South Africa, he had the added complication of the well-known film, Zulu, with Michael Caine to battle with.

I’m writing about the Battle of the Boyne, a battle of relative insignificance, militarily but of prime importance politically, holding an iconic status for people in the north of Ireland with its resonant image of William of Orange on his white charger. I’m also writing about the first siege of Limerick which holds its own cherished status for people in the south of Ireland.

So where do you start?

You can do as George MacDonald Fraser did so successfully in his Flashman series and ignore modern historians, concentrating purely on the personal accounts of the participants while also leaning on the historians of the Victorian age with their old-style narrative sweep. That might allow modern iconography to be stripped away and the attitudes of the time to be more clearly revealed.

Or you could apply the holistic, more scientific and culturally sensitive, methods of modern historians, concentrating on the economic and societal aspects of the time and the minutiae of battlefield archaeology. This could allow you to contextualise the battle for a modern readership.

You could do both.

What’s best though for the historical novelist?

Monday, 2 November 2009

The Sun Shines in the Past

First of all, welcome to my blog all you hardy souls who have braved the journey to An Impartial Relation from wherever you sit, crouched down, peering into a computer screen.

This blog then will be a record of my musings on history, particularly that of the 17th and 18th century, historical fiction and my apprenticeship as a writer.

It’s seven o’clock on a Monday morning and I sit at my desk and look out the window at blowing trees and teeming rain and I wonder how in the world can I put myself into my character’s shoes? It’s hard to dream of a hot day in Ireland in 1690 when the dark oppression of winter is upon you.

But that’s the job of the writer isn’t it? To somehow delve into your character’s thoughts and feelings and portray that for the reader. The job of the historical writer is slightly different. To find the things we share with people from another era while emphasising the thoughts and deeds that make them different and interesting to both writer and reader. To catch a glimpse of what it might have been like to have lived at that time.

So today, in my head and later, on the page, Guillaume, a French Calvinist or Huguenot, a soldier in the army of William of Orange, is fighting a battle in sunny Ireland.

Yes, you did read that right. The sun did and does occasionally shine in Ireland and on that fateful day in Irish history, it shone full well and the armies of two contending kings sweated with more than the heat.

Welcome anon.