Recently I attended the Historical Novelists Association annual conference, this year held in London. It was a great weekend with plenty of lively and informative sessions, though slightly more aimed at the aspiring writer than I’d expected. Highlights for me were a workshop on Battle Tactics and a panel entitled Confronting Historical Fact with the Unexplained: from myths & the occult to fairytales & the Gothic, chaired by Kate Forsyth.
Initially I felt a little out of place at this conference, since I write historical fantasy rather than straight historical fiction. However, anyone who writes in my genre can tell you that the historical research still needs to be done, and done thoroughly. A novel containing fantasy elements should be consistent to its time and culture, whether that time and culture are historical, imaginary or some blend of the two. (Many fantasy stories have a setting closely resembling medieval Europe. Also popular are settings suggesting the Victorian era.) The story may be brimful with fey beings, weird magic and humans with unusual powers, but woe betide the author who includes New World vegetables in quasi-medieval England, or gives an army the wrong weapons or a village band the wrong instruments. Readers are quick to point these errors out.
The conference sessions on research were as useful to me as they were to the writers of straight historical novels. A historical fantasy should be built on a strong foundation of known fact. The writer should become as familiar as she can with the time and culture that provides the basis for the story’s world. And, of course, the writer must also know her magical or uncanny framework, the ‘Otherworld’ side of the history. In my books, that Otherworld springs from the probable beliefs of the people who would have lived in that time and culture, whether it is the north of Britain in the Pictish era, Anglo-Norman Ireland or Norway at the time of the Vikings. I haven’t always got it right; I’ve learned from my errors.
At the HNS conference there was some discussion about which periods are currently most popular in historical fiction. What would your guess be?
The consensus was, the Tudor period and Ancient Rome. That doesn’t mean you should rush to write novels based on these periods – by the time you get your masterpiece written, the hot periods may be World War One and the Regency. For me, the most fascinating parts of history are the ‘grey areas’ – times and cultures with few or no contemporary written records. They allow scope for the imagination to run (relatively) free. Not that a writer should simply make things up to fill the gaps. Whatever you write has to be plausible and convincing (yes, even in a book containing the uncanny.) Research comes first, to provide what little is known about the time and culture – for instance, what artefacts did those people leave? What mark did they make on the landscape? What did other cultures say about them? Of course, take this last one with a big pinch of salt, as it may be propaganda or outright lies!
Next comes informed guesswork, based on the known facts, and taking into consideration what was going on in other cultures at the same time in the same general area. For instance, when I wrote the Bridei Chronicles, a series based in Pictish Britain, I had to invent a religion for the Picts, whom we know to have been non-Christian (it’s recorded that St Columba travelled up the Great Glen in an attempt to convert them.) I based their religion on my knowledge of earth-based faiths of that general time and area, as well as on the motifs that appear frequently on Pictish artefacts. I also used informed guesswork to flesh out the role of women in Pictish society, something historians still argue about.
But I also used pure imagination, the last building block. Where the history tells us nothing at all, it’s sometimes necessary to make a bit of a leap. In historical fantasy that leap may include elements of the uncanny. The main thing is to keep it real. Your reader must find the story and setting consistent and convincing. He/she must be able to slip easily into the world of the book. So do your research well and fill in the details intelligently, avoiding anachronism. And remember, you’re not writing a history textbook, you’re writing a novel. Never lost sight of the story.
The last part of my trip away was a week in Tuscany on the trail of another culture that left few written records: the Etruscans. Their elaborate burial sites and intriguing artefacts hint at a fascinating and once-influential civilisation, yet when the Romans spread into that area, the Etruscans more or less disappeared, as did the Picts when the Gaels moved into northern Britain. A mysterious untold story rich with possibilities – fertile ground for the novelist!
Writing something historical? What is your period and what drew you to it?
Reading historical fiction/fantasy? What is your favourite period and why?
Photo credit: Juliet Marillier