In the steaming summer of 1549 two men languish in the Tower of London. William West is accused of attempted murder. Robert Allen is under investigation for dabbling in the Black Arts. Meanwhile, England is in the grip of rebellions against the boy king, Edward VI. The connections between these facts remains a mystery.
The great 19th C historian, Lord Macaulay, said that two qualities are necessary for good history writing – reason and imagination. Reason is obviously necessary to ensure thorough and intelligent research. But historiography is not the bare recital of dry, authenticated facts. The writer has to ‘enter into’ those facts in order to help the reader grasp their implications for the characters he is describing.
This, I guess, is obvious to all history lovers. I know that I was switched on to the subject as a teenager by reading gripping works of narrative history such as C.V. Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. But Macaulay then went on to say that the same requirements hold true for good historical fiction. The novelist may legitimately give his/her imagination freer rein BUT the responsibility still exists to get the factual framework right. Anything less is fantasy fiction, not historical fiction.
Most of my writing career has been devoted to ‘straight' history but in recent years I have turned my attention increasingly to fiction. This is partly for the pleasure I derive from storytelling but also because I hope to engage the reader's imagination so that he/she will both ‘know' and ‘feel' what it was like to be living in a different age. Currently, I am involved in a series of stories set in the mid-Tudor era – and, boy, was that era different from ours!
One major contrast between the 16th and 21st centuries was, as Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch has said, ‘We don’t do God; they did God all the time’. Until we grasp that, we haven’t a snowball’s chance of getting inside the heads of our ancestors of 500 years ago. That means that, as well as telling the reader what my characters ate and wore and what their houses looked like, I have to indicate, to the best of my ability, what they believed; what their attitudes were towards, not just religion, but sex, children, social hierarchy, crime and punishment, etc., etc., etc.
Some authors had their imagination fired in the schoolroom by such sagas as ‘Henry VIII and his six wives'. Fine, it's an emotive story and not without its importance in the great scheme of things but how many romantic novels have been written about Catherine, Anne, Jane, Anne, Catherine and Catherine? Answer: too many! Most of them are fairy tales for grown-ups, all about heroines and heroes and villains living out their convoluted love lives against a background of banquets, royal bedchambers and horse riding in the park. It's fantasy. It's escapism.
OK, let’s not get too po-faced about this. What I write is also escapist. But the escape I offer is not away from drab 21stC reality into a glittering world of 16thC high society. I take my readers (or I aspire to take them) into the everyday world of ordinary people, as far removed from romance, as your life and mine are removed from the lives of Hollywood stars and TV celebs. I hope to engage history lovers in a world which, though invented by the author, yet feels authentic because the author has done his research.
The kind of critique that gives me most satisfaction is: ‘He has an ability to translate Tudor England, accurately detailed, onto the page and bring it to recognisable and sometimes quite spectacular life … his hero is just an ordinary, if privileged, young man and it is this sheer humanity which makes the book so outstanding’ (Crime Review 30.1.2016)
That gratifying assessment was of The Traitor’s Mark, the second in my series of mid-Tudor crime novels (I could say more about the sub-genre of ‘historical crime’ but that will have to wait for another time). The central character of this ongoing series if Thomas Treviot, a London goldsmith. I chose him because his position enables him to walk the ‘mean streets’ of the capital, while also having professional contacts with members of the royal court and the political class.
Each story takes its origin from a real unsolved crime or mysterious event. Thus, in November 1536, London merchant, Robert Packington really was assassinated with a handgun (the first recorded such crime in England) and no-one was ever brought to book for it. Thomas Treviot, Packington’s friend, tries to unmask the murderer and what follows takes the reader into the world of political intrigue, religious conflict and illicit Bible-smuggling. That, in a nutshell, is the plot of The First Horseman.
The Traitor’s Mark explores the mystery of whatever happened to Hans Holbein. The royal portrait painter simply disappeared from the record in the autumn of 1543. The ‘explanation’ that the artist died of plague only emerged sixty years later. What if there was another reason for his abrupt exit – a more sinister reason? Treviot becomes involved because Holbein is overdue in producing some jewellery designs for the goldsmith’s workshop and when he sends an associate to find him the poor man is set upon by murderous thugs and then finds himself on the run from an officious constable for a related crime. Of course, Treviot has to go to his friend’s aid, doesn’t he?
In The Devil’s Chalice we enter the world of Tudor magic – a world very real to all classes of society. The jumping-off point for this yarn was the records of the Tower of London for 1549, recording the incarceration of William West, suspected of trying to murder his uncle, Lord De la Ware, and also of Robert Allen, a dabbler in black magic. Could there be a connection between these two prisoners?
That is what Archbishop Cranmer, one of Thomas's most important clients, employs the goldsmith to find out. Soon the reader is drawn, not only into the world of arcane activity but also of civil rebellion, for a mob of malcontents, led by Robert Kett, have seized Norwich and may be about to advance on the capital. It was a pleasant challenge to try to recreate the widespread panic felt by thousands of people at this time of very real crisis.
I hope this brief essay indicates some of the ways I try to respond to Macaulay’s formula of bringing reason and imagination to bear in writing historical fiction.
# # #About the Author
www.derekwilson.com and find him on Twitter @DerekAlanWilson
The Devil's Chalice Giveaway
Want to win a copy of The Devil’s Chalice? To enter the prize draw, simply leave a comment below this post saying what historical event/time you’d like to use as a setting for a novel. Leave your comment by midnight on Saturday 26th November 2016. One lucky winner will be chosen at random and contacted for their details.