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Posts tagged ‘British historical fiction writer’

Historical Research And Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Tim Willocks

All that research. Years of it.

What’s the point? How much does it matter? Who cares? Who even notices?

Much more often than not, those who appear to notice or care (they looked it up on Wikipedia, but not in the Bibliotheque Nationale) are wrong.

Personally, as a reader or viewer, I really don’t mind pure fantasies of the past. If anything, the purer the better. I love The Iliad and Richard III. I was actually quite upset to discover that Blood Meridian was precisely based on real events: up until then I had I been in awe of McCarthy’s imagination. I think it’s great that Shakespeare made most of it up. The fact that in La Reine Margot both Isabelle Adjani (39) and Daniel Auteuil (44) played historical characters who were less than half their own ages did not undermine my enjoyment in the least; and since Dumas’s magnificent story is absolute tripe in terms of historical accuracy, there was no point in letting it do so.

The truth is that it is simply not possible to create an accurate portrait of the past. No one can faithfully reproduce the reality of the 1970s, let alone the 1570s. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t recreate last week. If one is rash enough convey the fact that there were no sewers in 1570s Paris, which meant that the streets were asphalted in excrement, readers and reviewers complain about the smell. Just about every great historical fiction ever created, from The Iliad to War and Peace, would fail as an essay from a History undergraduate. Charlton Heston’s Moses – or Michelangelo – is essentially just as good as anyone else’s, in historical terms. All that matters is that the fictional work in question achieve what we hope for from any good art. Since when was art in any form supposed to be ‘accurate’ in such a depressingly pedestrian sense?

So why, I ask myself, have I spent years of grinding toil on research that is, in essence, irrelevant? More to the point, as I contemplate doing it again, can I avoid it? Can I throw wide my window and scream: “I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Re-enter, once again, the truly great Charlton Heston.

Would many historical novelists of a certain age be writing historical novels if not for him? For what it’s worth, I don’t care that he waved a Kentucky rifle at NRA meetings; it’s a small price to pay for Chrysagon and Major Dundee.

I once met Gore Vidal, whose ‘Lincoln’ provoked a fantastically funny (and lengthy) exchange of letters in the NYRB, in which he blithely humiliated a squadron of bleating historians (well worth Googling). Imagine Gore’s horror when, some years after the novel was published, convincing evidence emerged to the effect that Lincoln was bisexual, and wasn’t too careful about concealing the fact. Anyway, Gore told us a story – I suspect one of his party pieces – about working on the script of Ben Hur. One day at Cinecitta he saw an art director who was dressing the set for a feasting scene by putting a bowl of tomatoes on the table. “So I asked if Mrs. Hur was planning to make Ben a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich.” His point being, of course, that tomatoes came from the New World and didn’t exist in Palestine in 30AD. (Apologies, but ‘CE’ holds no grandeur for me).

This story has haunted me ever since. Did they eat potatoes in Malta in 1565? It’s cutting it fine, I know, but not impossible – and would Gore Vidal review my book and humiliate me as he did the professors from Yale?

Thus at a certain moment I found myself wondering if there was a chiming clock in Paris in 1572, because it would be very useful, plot-wise, for my hero to hear it. After some hours of research I discovered that not only did the clock of the Conciergerie chime, it was in the perfect location to be heard at the moment I needed it. I wrote the scenes. The chimes worked marvellously. A month later I discovered that the chimes were not installed in said clock until 1573, under Henri III. Do I take the chimes out of the novel and re-write three chapters? Is there a single living soul among the few who will ever read the book that will know this exceedingly obscure fact? If they do, will they forgive me?

Gore’s tomato story returned to haunt me, along with the ghost of Charlton Heston and his BLT. I took the chimes out. I struggled to find a way for the hero to see the clock instead of hear it. A convenient gap – a wharf? – between the buildings crowding the right bank of the Seine? Knock the buildings down? (Who would know that they were ever there, except the odd art historian who might remember the paintings thereof?) Have him climb on the roof?

I rewrote it. But should I have? You multiply that kind of problem by at least a hundred time per novel and it becomes a recipe for insanity. Or at least for the urge to write a novel about last week.

Any advice would be welcome.

The illusion of historical ‘realism’, and the whole question of ‘history’ itself as a vast and shifting work of fiction/propaganda, are topics that will have to await future posts.

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Tim Willocks’s author website: www.timwillocks.com

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Tell Me A Story, by Paul Fraser Collard

It may seem odd that I should bother to take the time to write a blog piece with such a title. I am, after all, attempting to write things of interest to other creative minds that are involved in the world of writing historical novels. But it was one of the first subject titles that came to my mind when I first thought of writing this series of blogs. I shall attempt to explain why.

Historical fiction is a hard genre to get right. Not only must we create wonderful stories with characters that can grab a reader’s attention and a plot that will leave them gasping for more, but we must do this against a historical background that we know intimately enough to bring to life in a reader’s mind.

This is no easy thing. Research can be overwhelming. It can consume you. The effort we put into discovering every detail of the past taking us longer than it takes to write the actual novel we are planning. Yet it has to be done. Research is crucial and details simply have to be correct. If we want to be taken seriously then we have to convince everyone that we know what we are talking about. We need to breathe life into the dusty, dry words of history, giving it a life force so that readers can not only see the world we are describing but they can smell it, hear it, feel it and, hardest of all to achieve, understand it.

But (you must have known that this was coming) there is a central tenet that we must never forget. We are writers not historians, entertainers not teachers. We are there to tell a story.

Now for a confession; I pillage the past. There, it is out in the open and I hope you are not too shocked. I take history and thrust my fictitious character, Jack Lark, into its midst, using his eyes to see the events of the past whilst taking him on a journey through what actually happened to real people. I do not do so lightly but I am trying to do one thing, and one thing only; I am trying to tell a story.

I like to think I am honest about my dreadful act of robbery. I will always include historical notes that should explain where I have deviated from the real history or whose stories I have stolen for my Jack to enjoy. I feel bad for using the past in such a way. This is why I could never write a novel around a real character from history. That would feel too impertinent. I feel that I would be claiming that I know what a real person felt, said or thought, when I am sure they alone know exactly what that might have been. Still I take the past and adapt it for my own use, and for that I always feel the need to apologise.

It has been said that I am a writer “who wears history lightly enough for the story he’s telling to blaze across the page”. This is a wonderful line that, to my mind at least, has two meanings. A few people have read it and come up to pat me on the back to console me and to tell me to ignore the nasty man who wrote it. After all, I am a historical writer and wearing history lightly may not be a good thing at all. I take it as a great compliment (and I hope to goodness it was meant this way or I shall look a hopeless fool). I have set my stall out to write fast, pacy and punchy fiction. I want my story to blaze across the page. I long for nothing more than to set a reader alight with my passion, for my characters to be so real that they leap off the page and into their mind.

I want this because I see my job as being to tell a story. I shall try incredibly hard to get every last historical detail correct, yet I shall never be a grand historian. My stories will run fast and hit hard, and if you enjoy that, well, then I am doing my job. For I am a storyteller and I have no ambition to be anything more.

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Paul Fraser Collard’s author website: www.paulfrasercollard.com

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Accuracy In Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

A few years ago I was listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 about historical fiction. They interviewed Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Boleyn Girl and sundry other big sellers, and Bernard Cornwell, author of the hugely successful Sharpe series.

Philippa Gregory, who prides herself on historical accuracy, said ‘You go up to the point where we know and then what we don’t know you make up.’ Bernard Cornwell was more casual about it. ‘I’m a storyteller not a historian,’ he said. ‘In the end you sacrifice the history for the story.’

Bernard Cornwell has a valid point, but I’m with Philippa Gregory on the historical accuracy – I think you owe it to your readers to tell the story with due regard to the events, practicalities, mores and all the rest of it, of the times. But I also write for teens and I’m keen to produce the most readable and accessible book I can. I certainly don’t want to bog my reader down with additional historical minutiae.

I’ve recently finished a novel set in Soviet Russia, over the summer of 1941, and I made a few compromises to produce a story that a 14 year-old completely new to the subject would find accessible.

The first was cultural rather than historical. I did follow the tradition of using pet names, depending on the degree of familiarity between my characters. My main character is known variously as Mihail and Misha, and his friend Valentina is also known as Valya. But along with this, people in Russia have three official names – a first or Christian name, a patronymic (the father’s name), and a family name or surname. Also, most Russian surnames have an ‘a’ at the end when the person is female – Mr Petrov and Mrs Petrova. (They don’t have ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ either.) For the sake of clarity I just gave my characters a first name, and a surname regardless of gender.

I based this decision on my own frustration when reading a book, when you think ‘Who the hell is THIS?’ and I reckoned my reader would have enough on their plate already, with unfamiliar first names and surnames. (I love Russian sounding names but I feel the reader has to take on a lot with a succession of Barikadys, Leonids, Svetlanas and Yelenas. The last names are quite a mouthful too, especially if you live in a country where Russian names are unusual: Durchenko, Dyatlov, Dumanovsky, Dobrolubov…)

I also had a problem with what to call the NKVD, Lavretiy Beria’s repugnant secret police. The story is set in 1941 when they were variously known as the NKVD (Jan/Feb) the NKGB (Feb to July) and then the NKVD again (July to December). Call me slack, but I didn’t feel the reader needed to know that. If you’re doing a degree level paper you do, but not for historical fiction written for a core readership of teens.

The biggest liberty I took was with the structure and personnel of Stalin’s clerical staff. My main character is called Misha Petrov and his dad Yegor works on Stalin’s secretarial staff, performing some of the duties of Stalin’s actual secretary, Alexander Poskrebyshev. Yegor Petrov has a fairly central role in the story and I didn’t want to get caught up in fictionalising the life of Poskrebyshev. It wouldn’t be fair on him or his family, and most of all it would have got in the way of the story I wanted to tell – which was what it was like to be a 16 year old boy at the heart of Stalin’s murderous, paranoid regime.

I did point out several of the things I mention here at the end of my novel. I do think historical fiction is a really useful way into real history – certainly as valuable supplementary reading for anyone studying a period in depth, so I do think it’s important to let your reader know what’s real and what isn’t.

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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

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Using A Drama Degree As Preparation To Write Historical Novels, by Emma Darwin

So many of my fellow historical fiction writers spent their student years reading Defoe, Joyce and Greene. Some of them read Clarendon, Elton and Schama, at least when the pubs were closed. I’ve dipped into both myself, but I got my degree by pretending to be a tree.

The theatre, like any performing art, is devoted to tradition in a way that written arts don’t have to be, so in the Department of Drama at the University of Birmingham our trees were rooted in the soil of this classic Stanislavskian exercise. The more I write, teach and blog about fiction, the more I realise just what a good grounding a Drama degree is for a historical novelist.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that just because we set our novels in the past, they’re all about heaving bosoms. When you’ve had to wear full, period costume for anything from Hamlet to Strindberg’s Easter, you discover that the only way to breathe is indeed for your bosom to heave. Corsets work better than a Wonderbra for showing off your assets, but at the cost of 90% of your lung capacity. Running into the arms of your stage lover shows you exactly why all those heroines keep fainting: sheer lack of oxygen. Except when it was because they trod on their hem. Directors need to know this stuff, but so do novelists.

Then there was Wardrobe. I not only know how to wear a corset, I’ve made one – and a straitjacket (Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty). I’ve realised how much sewing and how much cloth it takes to make a skirt and the petticoats beneath, and just how much mending that trodden-on hem takes (A Doll’s House). Even a twentieth century show should have not just clothes but underwear actually from the period, for both genders: fabrics have changed and so have tastes in breasts, bottoms, waists, shoulders and makeup. Have you tried getting out of a too-low sofa wearing high heels, a 1950s roll-on, and not much else? I have, because in Albee’s The American Dream they switched sofas between the last dress rehearsal and the first night. Now, which of my characters shall I do that to?

Stage Management? I know how to research period weapons (Peer Gynt) and nurses’ uniforms (Testament of Youth). I know that hiring real scaffolding for a Constructivist set (Meyerhold) brings in more dust than you’d have thought existed in the whole of the West Midlands. I also learnt that if you fling a bloody heart to the ground it bounces, and reduces the entire cast of The Duchess of Malfi to giggles.

I haven’t yet used that heart in a story – do help yourself if you’d like to. My drama degree wasn’t just a source of good material. It put me right at the heart of what we’re trying to do in writing historical fiction: take an empty space in the present and within it evoke past worlds and the people who lived in them – and the trees, of course.

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Emma Darwin’s author website: www.emmadarwin.com

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Why Read Historical Novels? by Paul Dowswell

When I go into schools to talk about my books I’m sometimes asked “Why should we read historical fiction? What’s the point of it?”

I say:

a) Read it because it’s a cracking good story and entertaining – exactly the same reason you’d read any other novel.

b) Read it if you’re interested in history and want to get more of a feel for your subject or a specific era. The best historical fiction helps you understand the human significance of great events.

So today’s blog is about books which serve both those purposes brilliantly.

I’ve just written a novel about life in Stalin’s Russia, due out next year (Red Shadow). I make a special point of not reading fiction when I research and write my own books. It’s intimidating if the writer is especially good at their job, and you also end up feeling you might accidentally borrow ideas. But when I finished my book I dived straight into William Ryan’s The Bloody Meadow.

Ryan writes about a Moscow police detective, Korolev, rubbing up against the Russian underworld at the height of Stalin’s purges. This is a world of smoke and mirrors where friends and foes can be every bit as ruthless and evil as each other. Ryan conjures up this era with sensitivity and subtlety and leaves you in no doubt that Stalin’s Bolsheviks created one of the most oppressive societies on Earth. Here, a slip of the tongue could lead to 10 years in a hellish prison camp, or execution as an enemy of the people. Even when talking to those close to them Korolev and his colleagues have to be careful not to say anything that could lead them to be denounced as a class enemy:

Here’s a conversation about the attractions of Odessa with his assistant Slivka. She tells him:

‘From the air you can see what a well-planned city Odessa is.’

‘Our Soviet planners are the envy of the world,’ Korolev said automatically.

‘They are, although in this case the planning was done long before the Revolution.’

‘Of course,’ she added, her words coming out faster than previously, ‘Soviet power has transformed the city for the better, in every way.’

Travis Holland’s novel The Archivist’s Story is another magnificent read, set during the same era. The book puts you right at the heart of the nightmare absurd world of the NKVD and lets you feel the cold pit-of-stomach fear of a police clerical worker and former academic about to fall victim to Beria’s secret police thugs.

Historical Fiction can also introduce you to a world you didn’t even know you might be interested in. I read James Clavell’s Shogun in my teens, after finding it lying around in a student house. It’s easy to dismiss this kind of fiction as airport-bookshop-potboiler, but it introduced me to the beauty and cruelty of 16th Century Japan, and anyone who can keep their reader turning those pages in a book as thick as this has my whole-hearted respect and appreciation.

Robert Harris is another favourite historical fiction writer. He brings the Roman world alive in his gripping thriller Pompeii, which also allows the reader to learn about the importance of patronage in that society, and weaves in the most fascinating glimpses of their sophisticated technology.

Teen historical fiction does this just as well. If you want to know about what it was like to be a teenage girl in Viking Scandinavia, Kevin Crossley-Holland’s Bracelet of Bones will show you.

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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

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On Promoting Yourself And Your Books, by Julian Stockwin

Your book won’t sell itself. Publishers vary in the time and money they devote to individual authors. However much or little they do, you need to promote yourself and your work at every opportunity.

Website 

A website is vital. You can do this yourself or pay to have one set up.  My website is www.julianstockwin.com.

Once you have a website make sure it is up to date. There is nothing worse than looking someone up to find their website hasn’t been touched in some time and the information is not current.

Websites vary from showing just basic information on work published to quite detailed sites with loads of material designed to enhance readers’ enjoyment of an author’s work. It’s really a matter of time and budget but I would say invest as much of both in your website as you can.

Social networks

I have a presence on Facebook and on Twitter. There are also a number of other sites available, such as Pinterest.

It does take time to participate but a social network presence is expected these days. However, it is important not to have too much focus on the hard sell in these. If people are attracted to your ideas and comments on the world at large or little snippets of personal gossip, then hopefully they will want to take a look at your work. A good rule of thumb is 80% personal stuff, 20% information about your books. Social networks really are quite fun to be involved with.

Blogs and newsletters

Consider a blog. It can be part of your website or a stand alone. My blog is BigJules.

I used to publish a monthly newsletter. Why not write your own newsletter focusing on your particular period of interest? You need to think of how you will distribute the newsletter. I used mail-list.com and for a small annual fee they would send it out each month.

Bookmarks and postcards 

These are a fairly inexpensive way of spreading the word out and you can hand them out at signings and give to friends and family to pass on.

Bookstores 

Cultivate local bookstores. Whenever I am in a new town I pop into the bookstore and offer to leave some bookmarks and postcard. Usually the store will ask me to sign copies of any of my books that they have in stock.

Libraries 

Libraries are also great ambassadors of your work and are usually on the lookout for speakers. I have a special Library Pack available on request.

Emails 

I personally answer every email from readers. This does take time but I feel that if someone has gone to the trouble to read my book and then contact me they deserve a personal reply. You can also add a “signature” at the end of your emails with special announcements about your next book or upcoming events.

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Julian Stockwin’s author website: www.julianstockwin.com

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The Second World War In Historical Novels, by Paul Dowswell

A few months ago, I wrote about subjects that were perennially popular in historical fiction. One of them was the Second World War, and its prime instigators, the Nazis. This applies across the board – not just in fiction but many aspects of popular culture and entertainment: TV dramas, documentaries and films, and non-fiction of course. I have a personal interest in this, as a writer of teen historical fiction, as most of my stories are based in the 20th century.

Recently, my agent fixed up a meeting with a TV producer to discuss the possibility of presenting some documentary programmes connected to my books – especially Auslander which is set in Berlin over 1941-1943. We had a fascinating discussion but I could tell early on that we weren’t going to have a successful outcome. His opening words were ‘The market for World War Two and the Nazis is just about reaching saturation point.’

I knew what he meant. Anyone who keeps an eye on British TV will be all too well aware of how much ‘history’ we’ve had about the Second World War. This is still the case now – although for how much longer is anyone’s guess. The ‘History Channel’, dubbed ‘The Hitler Channel’ by Punk Rock legend Joe Strummer over 15 years ago, still has 16 programmes on World War Two over this week’s schedule. The ‘Discovery History’ channel has between one and three documentaries a night on the subject over the next seven days.

Focusing specifically on fiction, a look at the Amazon historical fiction best sellers tells a different story. US Amazon has only a couple of WW2 stories in its top 20. UK Amazon is swamped with Philippa Gregory’s Tudor scheming, with no WW2 to be seen. But the US Teens and Young Adult top 20 is teeming with WW2 books – 10 in all, although some are the same big sellers in a variety of formats. UK Amazon doesn’t have such a category, but bestselling authors such as Robert Muchamore have found huge success by setting some of their novels in this era.

Is the Second World War still a good bet for historical novels? It still seems to be, in my section of the market. After all, are there any baddies badder than the Nazis? (I loved the British TV comedy where two German officers work out that they must be the bad guys because they wear black uniforms and have a skull insignia on their hats.) Hitler, a dictator so lacking in humanity he made even the despicable Stalin look reasonable, still beats off stiff competition as History’s baddest apple. Was there ever a conflict on a greater scale, and with so much at stake? Seventy years after it ended we all still live with the consequences of the war. All of this makes fertile ground for an intrinsically interesting story.

Over the last decade, many teen novel runaway successes have been inspired by the subject. Those books, The Boy in Striped Pyjamas aside, often take pretty obscure corners of the war for their inspiration: Tamar, Mal Peet’s Carnegie winner, is based on British agents working with the Dutch Resistance. Markus Zusak’s bestselling The Book Thief concerns a German couple with communist sympathies, their adopted daughter and a Jew they hide in their basement. Julie Hearn’s Rowan the Strange uses the war as a backdrop to a story about a boy’s treatment for mental illness.

I think one of the keys to the success of the Second World War as a subject, especially for teenage readers, is its accessibility. This is a world of tanks, planes, machine guns and rockets – all recognisable in contemporary warfare. The home front too has telephones, cinema screens, radios, trains and cars. Teenage readers, who might regard most historical fiction as difficult to relate to, can empathise with this world.

This suits me. I’m happy to carry on writing about it as long as my publisher feels they can sell books on the subject. Reminding readers of the human consequences of war (rather than the gung ho excitement of all that ‘action’) and the perils of political extremism, seems like a worthwhile job to me. Even in its most obscure corners, there is still something fascinating and eminently readable about the Second World War. What do you think?

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Paul Dowswell’s author website: www.pauldowswell.co.uk

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AuslanderSektion 20The Cabinet of CuriositiesPowder Monkey: Adventures of a Young Sailor     Blood of the ReichThe Mathematics of Love (P.S. (Paperback))The Sultan's Wife

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