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?

1 comment:

  1. When I wrote Harold the King - the story of the events that led to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings, I researched as much information about the battle as I could and then stripped it of Norman propaganda, for my novel is written from the English point of view. I also spoke with many re-enactors who gave an insight into what it was really like to fight on a battlefield.

    For my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy (the what might have really happened story of King Arthur - no magic or fantasy, just the nitty-gritty events of 4th/5th Century Britain) The opening of Book Two (Pendragon's Banner) is a battle as the fight draws to an end. I wrote it after suffering a huge bout of writer's block. I went along to a Writer's Course and found it was not for me. We were set an exercise to write what was in our thoughts - with writer's block I _had_ no thoughts, which is why I was there.

    Rather than sitting like a chump, I wrote down single words that came into my mind: room, door, tree... field, sword, battle... next thing I knew I was writing a vivid battle scene.

    Read the result in the book LOL :-)