Freshly painted …the art of historical fiction.

Recently I noticed a review about one of my hist.romances which claimed some degree of anachronism – did people really bathe that much in the twelfth century? In fact my reading has shown there is a complete disparity of opinion over this issue, which meant I must make a choice. I did. I was writing fiction and I chose the scholarly fact that best backed what I wished to say.


I was also taken to task for using the word ‘puke’ because its roots are in the seventeenth century, which I knew. But I needed to imply a middle-aged woman vomiting up her insides on a ship journey. I could have used the word ‘vomit’ but even that dates from the fifteenth century. Exactly what words did they use for such a bodily function in the twelfth century? To substitute a word in Latin or Norman French or Occitan wouldn’t work at all. Nor would it be sensible in my opinion. So ‘puke’ it was. It’s powerful, short and sharp – exactly what this poor woman was experiencing. My feeling about language is that there must be a certain amount of leeway, especially if the story is enjoyable and is loyal to its timeframe. Then again, I suppose I could re-write the whole novel in Latin or Norman French…


Such things make me wonder why we can’t be more flexible both in reading and writing historical novels. Which made recent commentary by R.Clifton Spargo about the writing of the genre just the exact thing I wanted to hear:

  • Through untold hours of research, you must investigate a past you didn’t live. And even though you don’t have ready imaginative access to the events, you must make them believable. A tremendous point upon which the adaptable new historical fiction writer will jump. Personally I think it makes for real freshness and excitement. Colin Falconer approaches his writing with exactly that idea and I wrote another post about his thoughts some time ago. In my own case, there are many aspects of the twelfth century which are argued about amongst scholars, or worse, where there is no evidence at all. The best one can do is endeavour to be loyal to one’s timeframe and then take a guess. One can’t be sure its an informed guess because the facts to back it up may not have been brought to light yet. So it is and will remain a ‘guesstimate’.


  • Take your characters off the grid? Personally I love this idea. It is exactly what I think gives freshness to current independently published hist.fict . It has the capacity to scoop the reader up into a narrative beyond the more heavily laid down norm of the past. That must surely be a good thing. I think it stretches the art-form.
  • Make your characters resemble people, not historical personages. Characters based on famous lives must behave in ways consistent with experiences their real-life models actually endured in history. And yet, you need to know those lives so well as to begin to forget them, much in the manner each of us forgets so much of our daily lives as we race through them. I love it when historical personages have pimples or boils, become constipated or shiver with cold, get drunk or admit to fear. I hate it when they are placed in the ivory tower of their own historical magnificence. I want to forget that Richard Lionheart was a perfect strategist. I love finding out from an author that as a youth, he might have dared a young girl to climb a fig tree hanging over a wall, knowing she could fall to her death. I want to believe that these people were as normal for their time as we might be for ours. Why not? Isn’t it what we want from our heroes of today – to know that the famous have a life that we can relate to. It’s the kind of thing that sells today’s weekly magazines after all. That Angelina Jolie has a history of breast cancer in her family, or that Kate Middleton has bad hair days or that Prince Charles hates seeing his tulips fold in the wind like mine.


  • Make it new—‘there is no urgency to’ feel the urgency of repeating familiar detail. Here is a place only a novelist could go, where historians couldn’t. And so the reader can be given a reprieve from the info-dump that so many authors in both mainstream and independent writing still feel is necessary to the narrative. As a reader, I will always go to a scholarly non-fiction text if I want to find out more about the timeframe. Please, please, please I tell myself as I write – don’t be overt. Subtlety is the thing, Prue. Besides, is Spargo not saying that the novelist is writing fiction after all? Colin Falconer quoted Bernard Cornwell today. “If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician reformation, then write a history book – but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key.” 
  • Thank you, Bernard and thank you, Colin.