Thursday, 10 March 2011

Writing in the past

I was ten years old when I first discovered historical fiction. My Grandmother found a book that had belonged to my mother and gave me it to read - it was St Thomas' Eve by Jean Plaidy which is still, incidentally, on my book shelf!  I fell for the author's style immediately! As I got older I collected more and more of her novels - she is probably one of the most prolific authors there is - and made it my goal to have a collection of everything she had written.  This has got somewhat easier through time as her works are re-published.  Most of mine are from charity shops and second hand book stores.

It is no secret I think that I am making forays into the world of writing.  I have a handful of ideas and projects on the go at the moment - a couple of which have a historical slant.  One of them is about a completely fictional set of characters, the other about a real historical figure, probably not the best known but still real!  And I have discovered what a minefield the world of writing historical fiction is.  The level of research needed is astronomical!

I am a conundrum you see.  Whilst I am quite happy to read novels that aren't accurate I really want mine to be as accurate as it can get.  I'm finding it hard to accept that the work could still be enjoyable, if there were errors in the factual side, or if I had to make changes to make the story fit.  I don't read historical novels as a text book, I don't finish them and want to mark them as an exam piece on accuracy and factualness.  But I still cannot assimilate this with my work!  I find myself checking and re-checking facts over and over - I think I'm going to have to convince myself just to write and then double check all the details otherwise I may never finish! 

Dates and places are the easy bit I think when you're using an actual historical figure.  Court records, writings from contemporaries etc all give a pretty accurate and definitive guide to who was where and when!  Of course my other work is much easier in that the family is my own creation completely - so they can be where and when I want them to with no prior constraints such as an actual life!

My other problem is my hero.  I'm almost loathe to call him that but I suppose that's what he is.  And he's going too well! He's too likable.  Documentation and records show he was a bit of a cad - a bounder if you will, but I like him.  Actually I think I'm a little in love with him.  Time will tell whether he continues in his pleasing vein or whether he does in fact go off the rails.  He has to come to a sticky end though - I wonder how traumatic that will be to write!

I read a lot of historical fiction.  If you're interested, here are some authors you should check out: -

  • the aforementioned Jean Plaidy.  Has written from Norman times to Victorian and pretty much everything in between including some European history.  My favourites are the Tudor and Stuart novels, the series about Catherine de Medici and the novels about Lucretia Borgia
  • Cynthia Harrod-Eagles - her Morland dynasty is astonishing.  She tells the story of a family - the Morlands from Yorkshire - right through from the start of the Tudor period to present day - she has currently got to the end of World War One.  The scale of her project is absolutely enormous - and each book links the fictional family in with major events in history.
  • Elizabeth Chadwick who's novels are set in the medieval period and are superb - rich, full of life and she is a spell-binding story teller.  As an aside William Marshal is a wonderful character - I defy anyone not to like him after reading The Greatest Knight and The Scarlet Lion
  • Philippa Gregory - probably the most immediately well know historical author.  Her work The Other Boleyn Girl was made into a Hollywood movie.  I do love her novels mainly because like me she has a mix of novels about fictional characters and novels about actual historical figures.  Again the Tudor works are my favourites - if you haven't read it I would recommend reading The Other Boleyn Girl and The Boleyn Inheritance.
  • Jeanne Kalogridis - her novels The Borgia Bride and The Devil's Queen are fabulous.  Two fascinating characters brought so fabulously to life.  I have always (possibly bizarrely) felt stirrings of pity for Catherine - whilst she was undoubtedly wicked and in all likelihood unhinged by the end of her life I think she simply didn't stand a chance coming as a 14 year old to the established French court.  Both of these are absolutely MUST reads.
  • Diana Gabaldon - her Outlander series is slightly different in that it involves a modern (well 1940s) day character travelling back in time.  The historical sections of the books are incredible though - you can practically live, breath, smell, taste 18th century Scotland.
So there we are - historical fiction in a nutshell!  Watch this space in a couple of weeks as I'll be adding an excerpt from one of my novels.


  1. I like fantasy novels because that way I don't have to worry too much about them being accurate ;o)

  2. You might like this blog -- these ladies all write historial fiction (and very well):

    I suck at anything that isn't contemporary. I bog myself down with research and world-building and statistics.

  3. ooooh thanks for the tip offs! You might like Karen Maitland and also Ariana Franklin. I've also got Mistress of Rome that you might like which I can bring with me in April when we meet up!

    Looking forward to seeing what you write petal - am excited!!

  4. Sounds intriguing in any case, I think as a writer, you're almost destined to fall a little bit in love with your hero :)