#Secondthoughts: Historical Fiction

Social media can be tricky to navigate, but every now and again something pops up that can be quite fun.  I think it was in April that Medieval-a-thon popped up in my time-line.  @hollyknece’s brain-child, Medieval-a-thon is a reading challenge, which sets out a number of prompts for choosing books to read.  Throughout the month, a few mini-challenges are provided, such as getting a book read by a particular date or getting through a number of pages in a certain amount of time.  I thought it would be fun to give it a go, although with no particular aspirations to get through the seven books required to reach the rank of Emperor, still less the 18 that would allow me to collect all the costumes, weapons, and ‘buddies’.  As it turned out, I slightly missed the mark with the prompts although I did manage to get Dragon armour, battle axe and shield, and a fox companion.

At some point, I’d got it into my head that I should be focusing on books with a medieval twist.  I kicked off with a re-read of one of my all time favourite books, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Curse of Chalion, but as I’ve noted before, time for physical reading is limited at the moment, and I had more success with audiobooks, managing to plough my way through five of CJ Sansom’s Shardlake books while I sorted out the garden, did the washing up, and generally did all the jobs that left my brain free whilst my hands were busy.  For anyone who has read a Shardlake novel, you will know that this is no mean feat – these are weighty tomes, 600+ pages each (earning me a virtual battle-axe for ‘a heavy book’).  But the narration is generally excellent, Shardlake is an interesting character and there is a lot to take in: I know that the world is not strictly a medieval, one – don’t @ me!

For those that have not read any of these novels, the very brief summary is that hunchbacked laywer Matthew Shardlake gets involved in various politically entangled murders during the reign of Henry VIII.

Reading (listening to) these books, it suddenly struck me that Sansom has a difficult line to walk.  I am no Tudor scholar, but the books seem to have been meticulously researched and the historical aspects incorporated well.  There are a couple of points that I think are  touch dubious, and one that I think might leave Sansom open to defamation of character charges if the events written about were more recent.  That aside, the key thing that occurred to me is that Sansom has had to create essentially a sealed story, that fits with the occurances of the time, but does not impact on them to cause ripples in what really happened.  It is a little like the Red Queen’s Race explanation for a time-travel mishap – nothing has changed because the time-travel is all part of the whole.

In some respects, Sansom has an easier task than Debs’ and I: our work occurs less than eighty years ago, and there are a lot more constraints on us in terms of knowledge of where and when certain things happened.  We’re not writing a work of historical fiction in the same way though, and whilst we’d like to get the flavour of the time right, we’re not too worried about where the King, or the Prime Minister, for example, happen to be at any particular time.  By contrast, Shardlake is tossed about on the poltical high seas, and so sometimes considerable periods pass between books, and indeed within the books, because certain people have to be in certain places at certain times.   And at the end of it all, the story must be wrapped up in such a way that there is a satisfying conclusion to Shardlake’s investigation, but so that there is no impact on where the great and the good will be next.  There is a particularly villainous character who the reader hopes will get his just desserts, but the historian knows will escape to become richer and more powerful.  It is of course no hardship to write this character some literary handcuffs to prevent him from retaliating to Shardlake’s investigations, but he is free to go about his recorded business, sadly.

Food for thought then:  there are a few people of historical record who are mentioned in passing in the story that Debs and I are working on.  I need to go and reread a chunk, having made the comment about defamation of character…I don’t think that I have said anything that has not already been said by others, but wise to double check such things.

On the otherhand, with the movements of more ‘normal’ people, not just the ‘great and the good’ on record in 1947, perhaps we should try and fold in a few more of these into the background of the story.

What do you think?  Which is more important in an historical setting?  The background location, or the people involved?

© David Jesson, 2020

2 thoughts on “#Secondthoughts: Historical Fiction”

  1. Even for a seasoned writer, writing historical fiction may be complicated. You have the conventional concerns—planning, plotting, structure, character development, and so on—but you also have to deal with the in-depth research and the essential aspects around historical truth and authenticity. If you have an excellent idea for a historical fiction novel but don’t know where to start, this blog is for you.


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