Using Real People As Historical Novel Characters, by Julian Stockwin
I think it is vital, right from the outset, to establish your own ground rules about how you will deal with real characters in your historical fiction. Some writers take the biographical details of people from the past as a rough guide only, giving a very modern spin to their characters. I am not going to be prescriptive – there are all kinds of writers and readers out there, but for me, it is very important to be true to the historical record.
There are many people whose name history has recorded for some deed or other but about whom we know little. If I use such people in the pages of my books I obviously have to fill in the gaps myself when I am writing. This is where a knowledge of the times in which they lived comes in. I ask myself, given what we know of him or her: Is this a reasonable extrapolation? Could this person have been like this in this period? Making a little-known-about character come alive is one of the great challenges, and pleasures, for historical fiction writers.
Then there are the characters whose lives are very well known.
No sea writer dealing with the period I write about – the French wars – could ignore Horatio Nelson. He had such a huge impact at all levels, in life and in death. I personally believe he was Britain’s greatest hero.
When I was researching the Battle of the Nile for my book Tenacious, my admiration for the man increased even more. Nelson came across the French at anchor in Aboukir Bay off the coast of Egypt at sunset. They were facing outwards on what was essentially a lee shore. He then had to make up his mind in just a few minutes about what his intentions were to be. Then the wind backed just a few points, and he saw his chance! Abandoning entirely his plan of attacking by divisions he more or less threw his whole fleet in a single column at the head of the enemy line, knowing that the northwesterly was going to allow them to pass down the length of the line, smashing in broadsides as they went.
To me, the most amazing part is that the whole thing – abandoning the previous plan, the evolution with the anchor cable, and the insight to demolish the whole enemy line starting from one end – was achieved with just four signal hoists. And, at this time Nelson was a junior Rear Admiral with his very first command.
When I came to write my book Victory, which as the title suggests is about HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, I approached the task with some trepidation. After all, it was the grandest spectacle in naval history and has been the subject of hundreds of books. Everyone knows Nelson died at the battle. My challenge was to bring a new and fresh treatment to readers.
I read scores of books on Nelson and pored over charts and actual plans of the battle. As much as possible I used actual words he spoke. Having been both a naval officer and a psychologist helped me in building up a mental picture of the man.
But it was still a daunting prospect to write about such a hero – and I hope I did him justice.
Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com
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