Historical Fiction

I missed Monday’s class this week on historical fiction so I’ll post a few thoughts here. These apply to modern writers setting novels in the past rather than looking at historical books set in their contemporary time. However, I’m aware that writers such as Dickens, Hardy and (I think) Austen sometimes set their novels in a historical context (e.g. writing about events in 1820 in 1860 and so on, which isn’t that much different from modern writers setting novels in the second world war or sixties or whatever). I’m not really a big reader of historical fiction. However, I can see why it appeals to many readers. When we were asked on the first day of the course what we thought made a good read more than one person said it was escapism and being transported to another world — and that’s what well-written historical fiction should do. This also puts a responsibility on the writer to create a plausible and credible historical world and seems to me to add an extra dimension to the reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. One concern that I worry would preoccupy me if I was to write historical fiction would be to unwittingly introduce historical inaccuracies which I would think would break the reader’s suspension of disbelief. I guess in practice that readers do not expect complete historical verisimilitude. There will always be compromises between historical accuracy and communicating effectively to a modern audience — one obvious one is the way language and conversation change over a period of years. A writer probably has sufficient resources to accurately recreate language dating back for about 400 years (from Shakespeare onwards) but a mass readership would probably find this wearing and the use of modern vernacular is probably more practical. Paradoxically most care probably needs to be taken with vocabulary and diction of the more recent past — many common modern figures of speech are quite recent, although many others are centuries old. Clearly good reference material would be essential. The historical writer will also need to do considerable research about the world they are trying to recreate — historical events, social upheavals and changes in response to inventions and innovations (e.g. agricultural and industrial revolutions). Some periods are more interesting than others. I remember someone on an Open University course writing a novel about a blacksmith in 13th century England and he also tried to authentically recreate the speech of the time. I thought the combination of the two was pretty ambitious. In normally set my own writing in the present or fairly recent past — partly because I feel I want to write and comment on the present but also don’t fancy putting in all the time and effort to research a historical setting. However, in the novel I’m currently working on I realised that I wanted to give a character a backstory so I decided to write a couple of chapters in flashback. I took a specific date — June 1995 — which I think came to me quite subconsciously. It was the time when John Major suddenly stood for re-election as leader of his party. My character was the wife of a prospective politician and I used the historical event as both scene-setting detail and also to show her husband’s obsession with politics (and emotional neglect of his wife). I surprised myself by really enjoying the historical research (the period co-incided with the beginnings of the web so I could look up newspaper stories from the time online). I’m now thinking of doing the same with another character and going back a shorter time — to the Iraq war protests. So maybe I’d like writing historical fiction more than I thought? As regards an example of a historical novel, I bought ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel. I’ve not had time to read it yet but I’ve had a look through it and noted a few things. As is mentioned in reviews, she uses the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy. The prose is also vivid and sensuous — the opening chapter evokes feelings of pain and smell is mentioned several times. The narration and dialogue are also written in a modern idiom. I thought she borrowed some techniques from film (as some modern writers consciously do): there is even a cast list at the start of the book organised by historical context; the chapters are captioned in filmic style with the year of the action and sometimes the location. This book is also quite clever in the way it’s marketed — a revisionist view of Thomas Cromwell — which means that readers can feel they are engaging in a self-improving, earnest, intellectual discussion as well as having a good read. Mike

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