When is a historical fiction writer not a historical fiction writer?
I’m a fiction writer. Till this point in my life, I have written fantasy based on myth and legend. Two years ago however, I decided to write a historical fiction based around the legendary Sir Guy of Gisborne from the Robin Hood saga. Those who know of the book and who are followers of this blog will know it derived in part from watching the BBC’s Robin Hood series.
I decided to take Gisborne far from the familiar canon and set him upon an entirely different path. A fiction upon a fiction if you like. To do his position within the time frame justice, I needed to read. A lot. However, as I say in the author’s note at the beginning of Gisborne: Book of Pawns, historical commentary about the 1100’s is highly contradictory and thus I took whichever fact suited the needs of my characters.
Perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps one needs to go back and back through one’s research to find that most primary evidence from a commentator at the time who might have noted the thoughts of monk or master at arms, prelate or professional archer. Thus surely one then has the most definitive context for one’s story.
But then why haven’t historians done the same thing? And if they have, why do they disagree? Why is there so much conjecture over such things as bathing and cleanliness, ships, foodstuffs, fabrics and riding styles? These are merely a few that spring to mind.
I think there are two kinds of historical fiction writers. There are the purist HF writers who are in fact historians themselves. People like Dorothy Dunnett, who is and shall always remain my all time favourite. And many sterling others like Elizabeth Chadwick and Sharon Kay Penman whose narrative backbone is historical fact in its most exciting and articulate sense.
Then there are writers like me – HF writers that I take much pleasure in reading but who are softer with their fact, their stories character-driven within a historical scenario.
Whichever category historical fiction writers fall into, I shall go on accepting both. Putting aside my own style, as a reader I enjoy the experience of both types of fiction. I don’t prefer one or the other. In both instances I rest easy in the knowledge that each writer has been loyal to their timeframe and not taken the facts lightly.
A painter will always paint in the style which is right for him. That is not to say that he has ignored the very foundations of his art.Perhaps one can say the same of historical fiction writers.
What do hist.fict readers think?
I am and was deeply devoted to Dorothy Dunnett. Indeed, she was a great friend. I’m also very fond of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin. And lately I’ve been reading Robert Low. So I’m a fact-first-historical fiction kind of reader, I suppose. And have even, perhaps on one or more occasions, been known to wallop a book against a wall for messing with the facts.
Though that said, there was a book written by one Stephen Marlowe, “The Death and Life of Miguel de Cervantes” which was grand–iffy with facts–and utterly brilliant. So I guess the answer is–if it’s done “well”…
I can’t tell you how envious I am of your friendship with the inestimable DD. I have read and re-read all her historical novels and they are my desert island books. I remember finding the first Niccolo in the library years ago and it changed my life. I had majored in history at university in the 70’s but DD taught me more than any professor in any lecture. Her research is awe-inspiring.
I hate listing ‘soft’ hist.fict authors because they may feel shortchanged by the title, but in every case I have really enjoyed their work. They were in fact ‘done well’- as you say, showing respect for the facts but tremendous ability with characterisation and character-driven plots.
It’s terribly bad form to mention one’s own blog, but I’m going to do it here because it’s germane to the discussion–I wrote a blog about how Dorothy had completely altered my view of history when I read the Lymond Chronicles. Instead of the boxes in which historians of different faculties put their subjects, history to Dorothy was more of a stew–everything touching, nothing tidy. She simply blew out the walls for me.
And getting to know her and getting to see how much research she did answered forever the question, “How much is enough?” And there was no one whose brain she wouldn’t pick either, when she wanted information. All of which set an inner standard for me…
I love it when ‘historians’ disagree – mish-mashed theories can often help along fiction. And I always look for trotted-out ‘facts’ that don’t make logical sense when you think about them more deeply.
I think such disagreement from the ivory towers of academia gives a fiction writer a certain amount of licence which is nice. And Calvarytales, I do love that you look for ‘trotted out’ facts. It figures really.
Ha – completely missed that one! It must be the mindset, he thought, long-faced 😉
MmB, I’m delighted you mentioned your blog and I shall go back through your archive. I think that the ‘stew’ idea is lovely. Everything touching, nothing tidy. But stew? Maybe more elegant cassoulet with the densest flavour!
The density of her work means that even now, perhaps umpteen reads down the track, I am still finding new secrets, new gems. I sat and read the awful chess game between Lymond and Mallett the other day, for no reason other than my daughter is re-reading my collection and I had this book put aside to pass over. I was mesmerised. I knew what would happen and yet it still shocked me and awed me more than any conflict I have ever read. That ability to create heart-stopping tension with barely a word.
I envy that she was close by some of the best repositories of medieval and renaissance knowledge in the world. One is at a disadvantage in Australia unless one is paid the biggest mainstream advance and let’s be honest, in this day and age that is hardly likely.
Thank you for the connection to your blog re DD. In fact for any HF writer, soft of purist, I’d say it’s de rigeur.
Let’s be honest, DD daunts me. She always did! She always had more fingers in more pies than I had fingers and toes. And she did all these things well–which is even more disturbing.
It wasn’t just that she was this titan of historical fiction and research, she was a profoundly gifted portrait artist. (I once phoned up and caught her in the midst of working on a portrait of the Queen’s chaplain.) Her stories–told with the greatest fun and good humour–about the research for King Hereafter still make me quaver and think I’m not cut out for this business.
As for the getting at research–yes, she was at the heart of many things, and being married to the editor of The Scotsman opened doors, as did being one of the founders of the Edinburgh Festival.
But I know too that often she had to go at research like a terrier–because the facts weren’t just sitting there to be picked up. She was writing at a time when standard texts were telling the same stories over and over again and had been for 100 years, when demography was only starting to get going and the analysis of primary sources was in its infancy–she was one of the first to go to the primary sources, spread them all out on the dining room floor (yes, that’s where she did it) and say, “Well, I don’t think this makes sense…And look here, this fellow is married to this duchess, so there must be connections here…”)
So, in that sense, she’s a great inspiration to me…that ferret quality she had about getting at what was really going on…And too, she wasn’t afraid to ask questions. I know she button-held a Harvard prof she’d just met who was an expert on 15th century Mediterranean history and just picked his brains dry (poor man). I watched it happen–the shock on his face! Ha ha. Then that was replaced by engagement and getting caught up in her enthusiasm and intelligence. And she just held on and didn’t let him go till she had her answers…
Sorry, I’m hogging your blog. But I could talk about her for hours. She was that great.
Please talk about her for hours, I don’t mind.
I have an interview she did in Australia just before her death recorded onto tape (must get it transferred to CD) and it is stupendous listening but it’s the only time I’ve heard her speak.
I had no idea she was a Renaissance woman … ie that she was as gifted in the visual as in the written arts. How daunting, how awe-inspiring.
Whilst I drown in the depth of her research and feel she is unequalled, it is her writing style I most admire and thank the stars her editor never thought to alter it. I love her paragraph-long, under-punctuated sentences. It’s something I would emulate if I could.
I find her descriptions underdone in the most perfect way, her dialogue pointed and individually perfect for each character.
I find the poetic references almost too challenging and was glad when the DD Companions were released to assist but how perfect for the characters whose minds those words inhabit.
The breadth of research is more than I could ever hope to accomplish within the realities of my own life, which is why I would classify the first book of the Gisborne Saga (Book of Pawns) as soft historical fiction. When I read your comment about her pinning the Harvard academic to the wall and emptying him of his Mediterranean history expertise, I sighed. Trying to find anything as basic as a detailed map of Genoa in the 1190’s has been next to impossible in my far south location.
So yes, her qualities are all inspirational.
But for me the DD style is perhaps the ultimate.
I can’t thank you enough for revealing such insights. If you think of any more, please add…
Do you know Tinney Heath? If anyone knows where to get those maps of Italian cities in the 12th century, she will. She’s in the US. But, I also know that there’s a library in Australia which has a lot of early maps and they’ll send you copies via email…let me search out that info for you.
CalvaryTales: ‘long-faced’? I’ve a feeling you’re the ‘chef d-equipe’ of the pun!
MMB: Thank you and shall track down Tinney Heath! This has been a marvellous post, have enjoyed it greatly.
I enjoy reading fiction (any type) for the story and characters. I read historical fiction primarily for the charm the setting may lend to the story and characters with my only rule being no tripping over anachronisms, which tendency to do so is directly proportional to my knowledge of history — leading me to conclude that sometimes ignorance is bliss. LOL! And of course if the story and characters are good enough, I suspend the rule. : D
In regard to history, I’m intrigued enough with it to read it for its own sake and seldom read fiction to satisfy my need to learn about it. On the rare occasion I read fiction for its potential to draw my interest in a particular period or an aspect of a period, then certainly the reliability of the research becomes salient. But the reliability is only important in how well it can serve as a springboard to my own research, i.e., doesn’t have me chasing too many rabbits if I do take up the research.
So I didn’t read Gisborne Book of Pawns for the history but recognize how it contributed to the story and characters. I did read Sharon Kay Penman’s Sunne in Splendour a little bit for the history but also for the story and characters. Mostly I read it to observe Penman’s passion for the subject and to see if I would be infected with the same.