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?


  1. Gordon - as someone in the process of writing a narrative non-fiction book, my opinion is this: the title 'novelist' gives you carte-blanche to do what you please, to let your imagination run free, to really "get under the skin", as long as it's 100% clear that it's a novel. The lines are much more blurry with non-fiction; I'm using an imaginary character writing a diary as my framework and embedding documents and facts from the past in it, and I'm finding that quite problematic. It brings history alive, but am I a faker?

  2. Kelly, that sounds very interesting. It's a tactic used increasingly by biographers, particularly with subjects of whom there is very little epistolary evidence to draw on. To answer your question directly, of course it doesn't make you a faker as long as it's fairly clear your character/narrator is imaginary. What it does point to is how blurred the lines between fiction and non-fiction are getting in the historical arena.

  3. Yes, and I bet the growth of the heritage industry in the 80's and 90's has a lot to do with it.