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In Praise of Historical Novelists

Posted: 30/12/11 00:00

The first time I wrote historical fiction I had no idea what I was taking on. Even now, with one historical novel under my belt, and with a second on the way, I am filled with admiration for anyone who can craft a good period narrative. Of all the literary genres, historical fiction must be the toughest.

Writing a good novel is always a challenge, indeed it should be. But when I have written contemporary novels I've had no problem describing the setting. I know what my characters wear, what they eat, where they live, how they entertain themselves. I'm familiar with their slang, their humour and their daily concerns. It's all familiar stuff. But it's not when the characters lived centuries ago.

Writing a history book is a different sort of challenge. A historian wants to put forward a particular view of events. He has to organise his research coherently. If he's good, and wants his books to sell he has to bring events to life. But he doesn't go as far as a novelist. His emphasis is on informing his audience. A historical novelist has to inform and entertain.

Of course some periods in history are easier to write about than others. I live in London, if I wanted to write about Tudor England I would have a wealth of information at my disposal. I even had an office once in a Tudor building; I know what they feel like (dark, cramped and a fire risk!) But I wouldn't find it so easy to write about, for example, 14th Century Greece.

The Yavneh historical trilogy that I am working on is set in 1st Century Jerusalem and Rome. The Rome bit isn't too difficult, there is plenty of literature from the period, we're familiar with Roman ruins, I have a Roman road not half a mile from my house (though it's a bit more built up these days.) But setting the Jerusalem scene is much tougher. There's is only one historical source, a Roman Jew called Josephus, and he's pretty idiosyncratic about what he writes, I couldn't rely on him too much.

There are some Jewish sources too, but they tend to be based on oral stories and written down centuries later, so it's hard to tell whether the descriptions of clothes, food and daily life relate to the first century or to the time they were written down. In fact it's the Gospels that provide the most information about daily life at the time, but only incidentally, it's not their primary concern.

But I did find some interesting things. Did you know that ancient Jerusalem was full of pubs? Nor did I, but I found a reference to them somewhere, and to the date beer they served. As for its social divisions, they make today's political squabbles look like playground affairs. Some people were so poor that a family might only have one outdoor garment between them, whilst the wealthy, those who enjoyed Roman patronage, feasted from golden vessels daily.

There is an inherent danger in writing historical fiction however. That the history gets ahead of the fiction. Generally an author can develop his characters however he wants. But the destiny of historical characters has already been determined. It's easy to see how this can inhibit an author's creativity. It's why, when there is a conflict between the history and the story, historical novelists give precedence to the latter. They are writing historical fiction. Not fictional history.

Writing historical fiction has made me appreciate the genre much more. I know it's not the most popular of genres, it challenges the reader as well as the writer, and readers don't always want a challenge. I wasn't much of a historical novel reader before I started writing historical novels. But I am now.

 
 
 

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