What I Have Learnt From Hilary Mantel About Writing Historical Novels, by Eva Stachniak
Hilary Mantel – whose two latest novels won the Booker Prize – summarizes her position on writing historical fiction in the introduction to A Place of Greater Safety, her sprawling novel of the French Revolution:
Historical accounts are not always reliable. They can often be contradictory or scarce and thus open to different interpretations. Every contradiction a historical novelist encounters in their research becomes a choice to be made, and choices lead to varying interpretations.
Besides contradictions, historical accounts of even very prominent and seemingly very well-documented people or historical events contain many gaps. Records are by their nature fragmentary; they cannot and do not document what has happened ‘off the record’ or what led to the event in question. Confronted with these gaps and/or omissions, a historical writer is forced to resort to assumptions. Words preserved in letters, Mantel continues, have most probably been used in conversations. Opinions formulated in articles have most probably been tested during informal gatherings or debated in solitude. Thus, a writer has a right to imagine them.
In addition to the filling of these unavoidable gaps, a novelist often has to simplify history in order to dramatize it. These simplifications may involve sacrificing finer historical details by conflating or summarizing them. Mantel gives an example from her own novel: in The Place of Greater Safety she decided to call various police formations of pre-revolutionary Paris ‘the police’ in order to avoid historically accurate but tedious distinctions between them. Historical accuracy sometimes has to be sacrificed for readability.
“I’m very conscious,” Mantel writes, “that a novel is a cooperative effort, a joint venture between writer and a reader.” A writer is not impartial. A writer tries to see the world the way her characters could have seen it. Thus a historical novel is, as Mantel concludes in the Author’s note from Bring Up the Bodies, “a proposal to the reader, an offer.” This is what could have happened, given what we know. This is how the past might have looked from my hero’s point of view.
Mantel makes one more important point. Historical characters lived their lives without the benefit of hindsight, and did not know the outcome of their actions. Thus, a writer’s task is to recreate a world in which historical characters live their days the way we do, in haste, only partially conscious of the implications of their actions, unsure where the events of the day would lead them in the end.
For me, as I shape my own novels, Mantel’s reminders have become daily writing mantras:
Remember that a historical novel is a balancing act on the edge of fiction and non-fiction.
Remember that it is possible to form a plausible and complete world from incomplete and contradictory historical accounts.
Remember that by presenting historical characters in public and in private, with all their contradictions and limitations, it is possible to create a place where readers can dwell for a while and experience history rather than be taught a historical lesson.
Eva Stachniak’s author website: www.evastachniak.com
United States (and beyond)
United Kingdom (and beyond)
Australia (and beyond)
Writing Historical Novels