Balancing Research And Imagination When Writing Historical Fiction, by MC Scott (guest article)
Writing historical fiction is an act of uncovering, of peeling away layers from our assumptions of the past until we see something of the form hidden beneath. Or to use a different metaphor, it is the act of sliding into another’s clothes until we find what it was to wear them. This is quite different from much historical research, which seems often to be about bolstering reputations, or fostering ideas based on nothing more than hearsay and supposition.
This is not to suggest that historical research is worthless, quite the reverse: it’s essential and those who spend their lives in it do us great service, but there comes a point in the exploration of the past when it’s necessary to set aside the academic process and instead step into the worlds we explore: which is the realm of fiction.
I first came across this when I was writing the Boudica series: until then, almost everyone who had written of Boudica (or made films/radio plays of her) had mined Tacitus for what little information was there and then spread it thinly over the page/screen/microphone. In going back to before the Claudian invasion, I had a free hand, so to speak: an era largely untouched by previous fiction writers. Building the image of who we were was a long, slow process and I spent many hours in the various libraries at Cambridge: Classics, Archaeology, Anthropology, History… and at seminars and conferences wherein were gathered the great and the good of the Roman era. Two things became apparent; first was that almost everyone was writing a novel of Boudica (and had been for at least two decades and would be for another two decades to come: the thing about writing books is that you have to actually do it, as well as talk about it, for the book to reach publication). The second was that there were two distinct points of view when it came to the question of where the legions landed at the start of the Claudian invasion. One camp said they came in the east coast to Kent and up the Medway to assault the indigenous tribes near London, while the other said they must have come in at the south coast, in the shelter of the Isle of Wight, where there was a pro-Roman chieftain who would have held the coast secure so the horses could be landed and fed/watered/rested.
Throughout the last stages of writing the first book in the series, I was receiving emails, or letters, or phone calls from people who had learned what I was writing and wanted to be sure I got the Roman landing ‘right’, which meant either the Medway or Chichester (broadly speaking). I was politely vague, saying I didn’t know until I got there, which was entirely true. It wasn’t until I was standing on the edge of Gaul, looking out towards Britain that I began to think of how I would get there. This is the beauty of fiction. We don’t just create ideas, we have to make them work. My characters have to move through every stage of their preparation, they have to board the ships and navigate the tides and winds and currents, they have to disembark and look around them. I don’t necessarily need to put all of that down on the page, but I need to have done it so the thought lines and the memories are there.
This is where the screeds of wallpaper lining roll come into play, spread out on my living room floor, with me in amongst them drawing scale plans of the coasts of France and England, with bits of the Netherlands at the edges. I can draw on the tides and currents and likely wind directions. Then I can cut out scale models of ships, going smaller and smaller as I realise my scales is really quite small, despite it covering the whole of the floor space. So my ships are the dots that come out of the bottom of a hole-puncher, cut in half. We have four legions and four wings of cavalry, plus all their attendant gear. A legion is five thousand men (give or take), and they have their own cavalry, not included in the Ala that are accompanying them. They have their horses, their mules, their tents, their siege engines… We have a maximum of 100 horses to a ship and generally far fewer. Let’s say an average of 50 horses or 100 men per ship. That’s 50 ships per legion, minimum, plus another 50 per wing of cavalry, so that’s 400 ships *at least*.
That means it doesn’t matter if you think they landed at the Medway or at Chichester, it’s a logistical impossibility for them to land all of them in one tide at one place, unless that ‘place’ is a very, very long stretch of open beach.
That means, I think, that they probably landed in at least 2 places and I’m very happy to accept the arguments for the Medway (a quick transfer over in one tide from the Hook of Holland and a direct route to London where there was a crossing of the Thames) and for Chichester (Cogidubnos was a pro-Roman chieftain and he owned the landing places there, so the horses could come in safely).
I was half way through writing the section that suggested both of these were used, when I read a paper in, I think, Britannia, entitled ‘Septimus Saturninus and the Invasion of Britain’ which was a particularly astute piece of historical research that examined epigraphic data and suggested that the IXth legion may have sailed further up the east coast of England and come in at York – which would explain why the IXth was traditionally associated with York and would have made a lot of sense. I wanted to write it in but it would have been another 20-40,000 words in a book where we’d already cut 80,000 to bring it to a sensible length, so sadly, that part was missed and I stuck with Kent and the south coast.
Still, it was an interesting and useful education in the need to work things out from first principles, even when there’s a wealth of academic opinion to support a thesis. It’s been the same now that I’m writing about Jeanne d’Arc: the established opinion says she was a peasant girl from Bar who had visions of angels that told her to take the Dauphin to Rheims to be crowned – and this despite the fact that she didn’t mention angels at any point until pressed heavily by the judges at her trial (she spoke of her ‘counsel’ or at times, ‘messier’ which is what a squire called his knight, or a child her father) and that it is a physical impossibility for anyone to go from being a non-rider to riding a destrier in battle, couching her lance as she is described as having done. This is for another post, but this too has been an education: people will believe the most unbelievable things until or unless they’re given a suitable alternative: fiction can do this. It’s part of why we’re here.
MC Scott’s author website: www.mandascott.co.uk
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