Mastodon The Writing Desk: The challenge of writing historical fiction

9 May 2014

The challenge of writing historical fiction

A recent reviewer of my latest historical fiction novel, WARWICK, commented that, ‘This needed to be three times its current length in my view to do justice to the subject matter’. I am tempted to agree, although the job of a historical fiction author is to be selective, for the reader’s sake?

I remember wondering if there was a reason I was the first to tackle the life of such a complex character as Richard Neville, also known as the ‘kingmaker’. I read widely about the Wars of the Roses and the social and political fashions of fifteenth century England, both fiction and non-fiction. I lay awake at night wondering how much detail to include as my draft progressed. I cut and cut again during the editing process. One beta reader wanted more ‘blood and guts’ and another wanted less.

Baron Edward Bulwer Lytton
(Image credit Wikimedia Commons) 
This dilemma is nothing new, of course. Baron Edward Bulwer Lytton was an English novelist, poet, playwright and politician who wrote several bestselling novels (and famously coined the phrases ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. He helpfully commented in 1843 that:

'Unquestionably, fiction, when aspiring to something higher than mere romance, does not pervert, but elucidate facts. He who employs it worthily must, like a biographer, study the time and the characters he selects, with a minute and earnest diligence which the general historian, whose range extends over centuries, can scarcely be expected to bestow upon the things and the men of a single epoch. His descriptions should fill up with colour and detail the cold outlines of the rapid chronicler; and in spite of all that has been argued by pseudo-critics, the very fancy which urged and animated his theme should necessarily tend to increase the reader's practical and familiar acquaintance with the habits, the motives, and the modes of thought which constitute the true idiosyncrasy of an age. More than all, to fiction is permitted that liberal use of analogical hypothesis which is denied to history, and which, if sobered by research, and enlightened by that knowledge of mankind (without which fiction can neither harm nor profit, for it becomes unreadable), tends to clear up much that were otherwise obscure, and to solve the disputes and difficulties of contradictory evidence by the philosophy of the human heart.'

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