Saturday 15 February 2020

Why bother writing historical fiction? - by Rowena House

Embarking on a new historical novel, this one set even farther back in time than The Goose Road, I have been confronting a perennial question asked by (and of) storytellers of the past: why bother?

What is so important about this particular story that makes it worth spending years of one’s ‘wild and precious life’ re-imagining the dead?

Double-Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel offers a rich mix of answers to this vexed question in her 2017 BBC Reith Lectures. I’ve downloaded them onto my laptop and listen to her unique voice through headphones while cooking or cleaning, or drinking coffee and watching the wild birds on our feeders.

There is a mystical quality about her reasoning, a deep, personal connection with her own resurrected dead; they speak to her across the centuries; she is comfortable in their company.

But however authoritative and astute, Dame Hilary’s viewpoint isn’t enough on its own. If the response to why bother is, essentially, ‘because Nanny said I could’, that’s not going to keep me going through the long, difficult (and, doubtless at times, dark) days ahead.

Fortunately, a cross-section of today’s writing elite who either dwell in the past or visit it from time to time provided their thoughts as to why to the editors of the Writers’ & Artists’ Companion’s guide, Writing Historical Fiction.

Naturally, these experts contradict one another, so we lesser breeds are free to pick and choose, ponder and reject.

Among those I choose as a guide on this quest is Ronan Bennett.

Author of Havoc, in its Third Year (what a brilliant title) and The Catastrophist among other historical novels, TV and film scripts, Bennett rejects the notion that the past is such a ‘far country’ that its people were fundamentally different to us.

Instead he quotes the 1st Duke of Newcastle, William Cavendish (which ain’t something yer average contemporary novelists gets to do, ya boo). Cavendish apparently told his pupil, the future King Charles II: ‘What you read, I would have it history so that you might compare the dead with the living; for the same humours is now as was then, there is no alteration but in names.’

Boom! We’re just like them. Some duke said. Resonance between past and present rules.

Bennett continues: ‘The best fiction prompts self-interrogation. Historical fiction can bring us up with a jolt, like an eerie deja-vu. This is what I tell myself. I hope it’s true.’

Amen to that, Mr Bennett.

In the same Writers’ & Artists’ guide book, Michael Faber drew this useful distinction between two types of historical novelist: members of a first group, he says, set their novels in a particular era because they find it thrilling or romantic; they research every nook and cranny of their favoured period, and satisfy like-minded fans with full and telling details.

The second kind of historical writer wants to explore a ‘specific clutch of themes and human conflicts, and … realises that a particular era, which happens to be in the past, is right for this story.’

Novelists of this latter type ‘don’t have to worry as much about over-employment of research. You’ll be so preoccupied with characterisation and getting to the heart of human complexity that you’re unlikely to get distracted by crinolines or flintlock pistols.’

Boom. And there I am, freed from Dame Hilary’s edict that you can only start to write an authentic historical novel after you’ve plumbed every depth of your period and know it off by heart.

Rather, as Michael Faber says, ‘Use whatever historical details help you illuminate your characters’ soul and ignore the rest.’ It’s a motto I plan to pin to the wall of my writing room.

Not that I intend to skimp on research; it’s one of the joys of this hobby/writing life. Research is fun and exciting, with the weave of half-told history unravelling before your eyes and myths presented as fact disintegrating along the way.

But how can you know what you need to know from all this lovely research unless you already know your story? How can you avoid getting lost in the byways of a period when time is precious?

Personally, I think research is an iterative process, a conversation between the story as you first imagine it and the credible details (AKA facts to the unwary) which modify or overthrow these expectations.

My work-in-progress is, at one level, based on solid ground: a published pamphlet, lavish in its details of events. But it is also shifting ground since the story told is preposterous to our modern mind despite being presented at the time as truth.

Why did my protagonist write it? Why did people believe him – or pretend they did? Why are false narratives so compelling throughout time?

As a journalist of the old school as well as a teller of tales, this last question has never seemed more alive.

@HouseRowena on Twitter


Ness Harbour said...

Brilliant and fascinating post - Thank you Rowena for writing it

Rowena House said...

Thank you, Ness. It's such a big commitment there has to a jolly good reason to start! Good luck with yours. Xx

Stroppy Author said...

Absolutely - it's to show that people are and have always been essentially the same, the world over. I feel (as an erstwhile medievalist) very keenly that this truth is unacknowledged by most people. Some stories need to be in the past because a particular event or circumstances made particular themes important or more potent.

(PS Michel not Michael}