Historical fiction is incredibly demanding to write. There are rules, there are undeniable facts and there is respect for antecedents. There are also different styles of writing the genre. In a recent post on English History Authors Blogspot the difference in those styles was examined. In fact it seems there are what one might call sub-genres: ‘history light’, ‘history interwoven’, ‘history imagined’ and ‘history based on a true story’.
To be honest, I think all historical fiction/historical romance is a combination of both ‘interwoven’ and ‘imagined’ and in many cases is loosely or closely based on a true story. The real clincher for me is whether it is light (what I often call soft) or heavy – the latter term in no way denouncing a particular book.
For example, Dorothy Dunnett is what I consider ‘heavy’. Her devotion to the detail that is fact in historical fiction is iconic. But I like to think that DD’s imagination in creating multi-faceted characters like Lymond and Niccolo within her chosen timeframes gives her an edge as a writer of perfectly classic hist. fiction.
And this is why:
If I wanted to read fact about the periods in time that interest me, I would read non-fiction – reams of it, all written by erudite academics. But I want my history to come alive – for me to smell, see, feel, hear and touch the timeframe. So I choose an author who has created an amazingly strong protagonist within a storyline and who can then reveal to me, through that character’s experiences, exactly what it was like at that time.
I hate info dumps. DD managed to educate me within an inch of my life about fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe but I never once felt I was being dumped upon from a great height. I’ve just read a mammoth hist.fict which bored me witless because it was dump after dump after dump. No character within the novel was developed enough for me to care about them, even though I had known those historic personages from my primary school years. I was saddened by the experience, as this writer is profoundly important and highly recognised.
My own stories are always character-driven. In the case of the hist.fict/hist.romance, this is especially the case. I pay due homage to the facts as I have researched them from the twelfth century but I try not to labour the point. It is perhaps like dabbing the pulse points on the body with Chanel Number Five, not bathing in it. Subtlety is all. I am perfectly happy to call my books ‘soft’, most certainly ‘imagined’. My only desire is that any reader will sink so deep into my character’s very psyche, that reaction to the historical surrounds will be an intimate and subconscious thing.
I noticed this myself recently. I was watching Restoration House and the dwelling featured had sixteenth century detail (not my chosen timeframe, as you know). I found I was speaking aloud about what we were seeing before the presenter spoke and I suddenly pulled up and thought, Oh! And then I realised just how much DD had indeed passed onto me in her own inimitable way.
So that’s the way I write my own hist.fict/hist.romance novels – it becomes an experience rather than a classroom lesson. Right or wrong? I think it’s all incredibly personal … readers will always choose according to their own predilection! Feel free to tell me yours…
You may also like to read The Games of Kings panel discussion.
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