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?