Monday, 4 July 2011


I am delighted to welcome the award-winning and highly intelligent writer, Mary Hoffman, on publication day for her new historical novel, David. But I don't have people on here only to launch their books - I make them teach us something. So, my questions to Mary are all based around the idea of historical fiction, how it works, what it needs, what the pitfalls are. It's one of my favourite things to write - and for a children's or teenage author, as Mary and I both are, it's full of extra possibilities, unconstrained as we are by the bounds of mobile phones, social services and interfering parents.

A little bit about David, first:
Aged just eighteen, Gabriele sets off from his home in Settignano to make his fortune in Florence. He plans to go straight to the home of renowned sculptor Michelangelo, who is also his ‘milk brother’, but instead finds himself in the house of a wealthy widow. Before he knows it Gabriele’s plans of living a simple life as a stonecutter have disintegrated and instead he has become an artist’s model, embroiled in Florentine politics and spying for the frateschi. Gabriele is playing a dangerous game and will be lucky to escape Florence with his life.

And a little about Mary:
Mary Hoffman is an acclaimed children’s author and critic. She is the author of the internationally bestselling picture book Amazing Grace. Her Stravaganza sequence for Bloomsbury has a huge fan base and Stravaganza: City of Secrets was nominated for the Carnegie Medal. She has also received award recognition for her stand-alone historical titles: Troubadour was nominated for the 2010 Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the Costa Book Award and The Falconer’s Knot was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Award and winner of the French Prix Polar Jeunesse 2009. Mary lives with her husband in Oxfordshire.

Right, you lot, settle down and listen to Mary opening the door to historical fiction.

NM: When you hear a true story that you want to turn into a novel, what are the ingredients you look for which make it work?
MH: The three "straight" historical novels I have written have all begun in a different way:
The Falconer's Knot had a "mother" and a "father". My editor at Bloomsbury asked me if I'd like to try writing "The Name of the Rose for teenagers" and my husband came back from a falconry day, talking about how to tie "a falconer's knot" and the two fused together to make the novel.
Troubadour began with a single word. I just could not get the word "troubadour" out of my mind. I was sort of haunted by it. So I knew I had to start researching it. Then I found out that the flourishing of the troubadours - and women troubadours too (called Trobairitz) - came at the same time as the most ghastly massacres and mutilations of the Albigensian Crusade in the early 13th century. Courtly Love and hideous slaughter: hence the subtitle, a story of love and war.
NM: What attracted you to David? [Apart from his, erm, physique!]
MH: Funnily enough, although I am a massive fan of Michelangelo's sculptures, David is not my favourite. But he is just so "there"! [NM: Indeed!] You can't ignore him. I suppose I felt bound to write about him. But what really attracted me was that the historical facts were there as a sort of scaffolding but that no-one knew anything about the model of the David - or even if there was one. That's an irresistible challenge for a novelist.

David is so well known that he needs no explanation but the other two are about much obscurer events and practices. I can't find anything in common across the three or with the next historical project; I can only say "I know it when I come across it"!
NM: Sometimes we have to alter or ignore historical details. Can you define what sort of things you feel you can alter and what do you feel you can't?
MH: I don't change anything! What I do is add and insert and elaborate. But, possibly because I don't have a history degree, I try to be as accurate as possible. And I always put a historical note, to show which characters and events are historical and which invented.
NM adds: I've also never had to change anything such as dates or events, but I have an example to show the sort of thing we could change. When I was writing Fleshmarket, I needed a fire to have happened in a certain part of Edinburgh's Old Town in 1824. Now, there were often fires in the Old Town, so I could just have invented one, but, as it happens, the biggest fire of that era happened in exactly the part where I needed it, in 1824. But if it hadn't, I'd have invented it.
MH: Having just said that I don't change anything, I did change the leader of the pro-Medici faction in David! The real historical one was called Doffo Spini - great name isn't it? - but I wanted him to play a specific, quite unpleasant role in the story, so I made up a different leader, called Antonello de' Altobiondi, and then clad all his followers in purple and green. But I play fair and say that in the Historical Note.
NM: Are you more research fanatic or impatient to get the story down? Can you tell us something of your research methods?
MH: I research madly, fanatically, for months and make copious notes. Then I put it all away in a box, write the story and just trust that, when I need it, that bit of detail I researched will come back to me. And if I'm lucky I'll be able to find the right note and check on it. [NM: Sounds just like me.]
And of course, while writing, I am bound to come across something that I didn't anticipate needing to know. Then I stop writing and find it out. But ultimately it's the story that matters; you could stop and check a dozen times on every page but you need to reach a point where you can trust your ability to tell a story and hope that you've done enough homework not to make any mistakes that will require a complete re-write.
I make timelines and card indexes and family trees and love all the supporting apparatus of writing a historical novel.
NM: Do you have a favourite period or setting that you like to return to?
MH: I write about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, mainly in Italy (though Troubadour begins in the south of France). I don't think I would write about anything earlier than 1200 or later than 1620-ish. But that's still over 400 years so quite a big span. At the moment I'm researching some Plantagenet novels set in England for a change, beginning about 1389.
NM: Apart from familiarity with that period, what makes it so wonderful to write about?
MH: What makes it wonderful to write about is partly not having to live in it! Imagine having toothache, or giving birth or having to have an operation in my favourite period! [NM: I felt that while describing the mastectomy without anaesthetic in Fleshmarket...] And as a vegetarian, I would probably starve. There's a wonderful book by Ian Mortimer, called The Time-Travellers Guide to the Middle Ages, which makes it very clear I wouldn't have survived five minutes.

But what attracts me about those periods is that in medieval and Renaissance Italy art was revered and considered part of everyone's life. When a great new altarpiece was made for the cathedral in Siena, it was carried through the streets of the city and practically mobbed. That's connected with the role of religion too, which fascinates me. Everyone in Europe understanding the iconography of great religious painting and sculpture. Everyone knowing the stories behind them.

I like the idea that people believed there was more to life than getting your daily bread. It doesn't have to be religion (although it pretty much did have to be then) but they accepted there was a spiritual dimension to life; they took that for granted and we seem to have lost that.
NM: How do you approach the historical "archaic" language problem, especially when writing for young people who might have less tolerance for old word usage? Any tricks?
MH: Ah the old "forsooth" and "gadzooks" trap! I try to keep dialogue very plain but without much elision. "I cannot" in dialogue immediately gives an older feel. But I use the "right" word in narrative, even if its occasionally a hard one, like "psalter" "unshriven" "flagon," even if they are not part of modern teenage vocabulary. The context always gives it to the reader and I'm not going to say "book of psalms," "without being absolved" or "vessel for holding wine." I think
readers LIKE unusual words, as long as there are not so many of them as to obscure meaning. And it gives the right flavour to the story, a sort of richness of detail in the language, which matters to me.
NM adds: I completely agree. Another trick I use is occasionally to alter the modern order of words. for example, instead of saying, "I don't know," I might say, "I know not."
NM: Sometimes in historical fiction, it's the secondary, (often truly fictional), characters who are the most fun to create, perhaps because we have total freedom with them. Who is your favourite character in David? 
MH: What an interesting question! My favourite characters CAN be historical; I loved writing about the painter Simone Martini in The Falconer's Knot. In David, it really is Gabriele, the main character, who most engaged me because I did have almost total freedom with him but I also enjoyed writing about Leonardo's retinue of "boys" especially Salai, his favourite in every sense.
Fabulous answers, Mary! Thank you, and I wish you the hugest success with David. It's a wonderful story, very expertly and grippingly told.

Mary also told me that there'd been some discussion on Twitter about what the Italian for Crabbit Old Bat would be. They settled on "vecchiaccia bisbetica", which apparently has no bats in it at all but I do think it sounds suitably irritable and snappy, so I graciously accept the title. Even though I can't pronounce it.

By the way, Celia Rees and I are speaking together about historical writing for young people, at the Edinburgh International Book Festival - Sunday 21st August. Do come!

Also, DO head over to the brand new and already wave-making History Girls collaborative blog, where Mary, Celia and I, along with many others, can be found keeping the past alive.


JO said...

Thanks for a fascinating post. I'm playing with an idea at the moment - a story I came across in New Zealand about a woman who was exiled to Australia and ended her days servicing gold prospectors in New Zealand. So I've copied and pasted this into my 'useful notes' folder. Thanks.

Sally Zigmond said...

What a fascinating post. Great questions and great answers. (And more books to add to my must-read pile.) As a not yet fully-fledged historical writer I hurried over the History Girls blog which is now high up on my favourites list.

PS. When will I ever find the time to write?

Dan Holloway said...

Fascinating what you say about those minor characters. That's always been the case, hasn't it, stretching back in time from supporting roles in films through the commedia dell'arte. With your period and place and in the light of that comment on minor characters I have to ask whether when you write you use that distinction between "high" and "low" characters?

Michele Helene (Verilion) said...

Great post Nicola. It almost makes me feel like writing some historical fiction... or maybe I should just get writing.

Stroppy Author said...

Thanks, you two! Wonderful post.

womagwriter said...

Brilliant post, thanks both. I'm editing my historical (Georgian/Victorian) novel at the moment. Love reading it too. I've book marked History Girls also.

HelenMHunt said...

I love historical fiction that has fact woven into the narrative. Really interesting post.

M Louise Kelly said...

Thanks for this post. I read it yesterday and either because i am selfish or self-disciplined i didn't comment straight away but went straight back to the 14th Century YA book i'm writing and tried to apply the pearls of wisdom you've given here!

I particularly enjoyed your discussion of staying true to historical detail but how you might add/alter.
Although it's not relevant to my current project, I often wonder how you'd tackle attributing views and dialogue to real historical characters who were in recent enough past and famous enough to have decent and detailed records available. Victorian scientists for example. Are you allowed to put thoughts into the mouths of Charles Darwin etc. or would you try to tell their story from the point of view of a minor minion instead?

Thanks again, and really looking forward to getting a copy of David now!

p.s. I'd heartily recommend Mortimer's Time-Travellers' Guide too. It's what set me off on the track of my current project...