The Untold Story of England’s Beginning. Denmark, 444 A.D. Two brothers – the cold and calculating Hengest and the intrepid but headstrong Horsa – find their separate worlds thrown into turmoil by royal treachery and an evil cult thought long dead.
A couple of years ago I read an interview with Philippa Gregory and Wayne Johnston featured in The Globe and Mail entitled; Truth, lies and historical fiction; how far can an author go? and it got me thinking. According to most people history comes from history books and fiction is...well, fiction. So what does the combination of historical fiction even mean? Is such a thing possible?
The way I see it, historical fiction is simply filling in the gaps. And there are always gaps. We think we know history by looking at a few facts but there is so much more that we don't know. We know, for instance, that Harold Godwinson won the Battle of Stamford Bridge and about three weeks later, died at the Battle of Hastings.
What Harold did during those three weeks other than march south is not very well recorded. We don't know what he ate, who he spoke to or if he was happy or sad. This is where writers of historical fiction come in. Wherever there is room for a story within the framework of what we know, there is room for historical fiction.
The minute you start playing around with the facts and changing things for the sake of 'a better story', then what you are writing begins to wander into the genre of alternate history. The film Braveheart with its kilts, woad and pregnant Isabella of France (who was ten when William Wallace died) is so far removed from what actually happened that it might as well be set in an alternate middle ages.
But what about Conn Iggulden (one of my favorites), whose Emperor series takes many liberties with the life of its subject Julius Caesar? At the end of each novel, Conn explains his choices and, in the light of the overall character arch that sees the young statesman rise to the position of dictator and eventual fall, they are fairly minor. But we can see that the definition of the genre is a matter of debate and the lines in the sand are not clearly drawn. Some authors stick religiously to the facts while others fiddle about with them.
Where it gets even more woolly is when the facts themselves become open to interpretation. To use good old Harold again, many say that William the Conqueror invaded England out of his own greed. Now there are plenty of others (mostly the French) who claim that Harold pledged support for William’s claim to the English throne while visiting Normandy, and then took the crown for himself, thus justifying the Norman Conquest of England.
Whichever camp you plant your standard in, there are going to be people who will say that you've got history wrong. But choose we must for to write a compelling novel, we cannot be ambiguous. We must connect with the reader by revealing the feelings, personal struggles and conversations of people who may only get a passing mention in historical records. We have to use our imaginations where the writers of (good) non-fiction must stick to what is recorded and substantiated.
So historical fiction is not just writing about what we know, but what we don't know. It is acknowledging the facts and taking history that bit further in the name of entertainment. It is clear that there is a sliding scale in place with history on one end and fantasy on the other and everything falling somewhere in between.
It is possible to write a novel that adheres to the known facts completely and changes not a thing but modern dialogue, morality and the baggage we take with us often seeps in meaning that any work purporting to be ‘historical fiction’ is only ever an interpretation of the past through modern eyes.
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Monday, January 18 Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, January 19 Interview at Flashlight Commentary Spotlight at A Literary Vacation
Wednesday, January 20 Guest Post at The Writing Desk
Friday, January 22 Character Interview at Boom Baby Reviews
Saturday, January 23 Excerpt & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews
Monday, January 25 Spotlight at CelticLady's Reviews
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Friday, January 29 Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past