Friday 15 January 2010


When I asked what topics you'd like me to cover this year, Dan Holloway asked about historical fiction [HF]. He says that he loves history but hates historical fiction. He doesn't like it when it is verbose, pompous, archaic, and shows off the research. He wants a story which:
"has sharp, active sentences, brilliant plotting, doesn't tell me about the history of whalebone just because someone's wearing a corset, and speaks like I do. ... Yet stories like that never seem to reach the shelves because they don't obey the conventions of HF.

So I want to know - what REALLY ARE the HF conventions that an agent/publisher will demand? And if someone wants to write a story set in the past that knows how to end a sentence without seventeen subclauses, do they have to give up the HF tag and market it as lit fic?"
To reassure you all that I do know something about this: I have had three historical novels published and they've gained good reviews. All happen to be for teenagers, but everything applies identically to adult HF. Fleshmarket is set in Scotland in the 1820s and The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse are set in England and then Scotland in the the 1760s. Luckily, many of you have already been very complimentary about them - phew! Also, of course, I read HF, though I also read and write other genres, too. In fact, the book by my bed just now is a wonderful debut HF crime novel by Alastair Sim, called The Unbelievers, published by Snowbooks. I highly recommend.

There are three main aspects of HF for an author to consider:
  1. Can you change history?
  2. Language - should it be authentic for the period?
  3. How much is too much info and research?
For a very interesting conversation about this, go here and here. [The second is a response to comments from the first.] Read the comments, too.

There are some things you can change and some you can't. Here are the bare bones of it:
  • You are inventing characters, so you are inevitably changing history. So, get over it. 
  • However, your readers must believe you. So, they will believe that an unknown man once met Henry IVth in a jousting tournament and tripped over his halberd [if halberds were around then, of which I've not a clue, but about which I would certainly have to have a clue if I was writing that period, which I wouldn't because halberds and jousting do nothing for me]; but they will not believe that Henry IVth had two heads. If you want H4 to have two heads, you'll have to go down the magical realism / dreamstate / totally weird route and hope that your readers are dabbling with illegal substances. Normal readers will believe that there was a fire in Edinburgh in 1829, even if there wasn't, but they won't believe that Edinburgh was entirely destroyed by a comet in 1829. Unless we are genuinely being asked to accept a parellel-world story.
  • You cannot refer to something that didn't exist then. For example, if matches were invented in 1829, you cannot have matches being used in 1828. Some geeky pedant in hgh school will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you are an idiot. This provides the most delicious opportunities for HF writers to show off. For example, you cannot imagine the pleasure I got from mentioning umbrellas and kaleidoscopes in Fleshmarket.  Hehehehehehe. Nom nom nom, as my daughter would rightly say about cranberry and brie canapĂ©s.
  • BUT you must NEVER show off your research treasures. My husband lying in bed reading my new novel and muttering "research alert" is the nightmare scenario for me. I don't know if Dan Brown is married but I hope his wife had the strength to do a hell of a lot of muttering. [I'll mention this more in the section about wearing your research lightly.]
Damned irritating things, zounds and hell's teeth. Avoid clunking archaisms, please. On the other hand, you've got to get it right. Or, more importantly, you mustn't get it wrong: you cannot use any word or phrase which would not have been used. So, you cannot say, "no-man's land" in a book which pre-dates the First World War, as I tried to do in Fleshmarket but was saved from by my clever editor. You have to be aware of how meanings of words have changed. Take the word "sensible" - it just wasn't used to mean "un-stupid" in the 18th century: it meant "aware". One essential tool for the HF writer is the "Shorter" Oxford dictionary [shorter?? Gah!] This will tell you when words were first used. Invaluable, trust me. Even if it does weigh more than me after a large dinner. But all this does NOT mean you have to litter your story with silly words just for effect.

There are three ways of writing historical language:
  1. Do it very authentically.
  2. Do it moderately. 
  3. Ignore it.
1. I asked my erudite blogger friend, Catherine Hughes, to name me some books that took the very authentic approach. It seems that they generally don't, nowadays. Thank goodness, says Dan, and I agree. Her impression, borne out by her questioning of the good folks in Waterstone's, and my own feelings, is that archaic language only ever works in dialogue. She gave me some examples of HF where archaic dialogue is used: Kate Mosse's Labyrinthe, Paula Brackstone's work, Diana Gabaldon [who also, acc CH, defines the period by the type of dialogue] and Barbara Erskine. There are more examples, as Catherine says, but the main point to take from this is that nowadays you'd be best reserving your strictly authentic language for dialogue. And even then, be warned that you risk getting in the way of the reader's own voice - we readers tend to trip up on dialect and other voices that are not natural to us, including authentic archaic lingo.

2. Moderation is the approach I use, even if moderation does not come naturally to me in other areas of my life. The trick here is not to use specifically archaic words or phrases but subtly to twist modern usage to create a gentle effect of oldness. There are some specific techniques and I offer you an example of each one, all taken from The Highwayman's Curse:
Correct formality of language where modern usage favours a grammatical slip: instead of the modern, "Was I no better than him?", my "archaic" version is, "Was I no better than he?"
Twist of word order: instead of the modern, "I had never met someone like...", my version is, "Never had I met someone like..."
 Use of a slightly archaic word: instead of the modern, "It bothered me that...", I say, "It irked me that..."
3. Ignoring the need for authentic language, while not being obviously anachronistic, in other words by avoiding colloquialism, slang, or words which could not have been used at the time, is possible. I think it would be unlikely to be used in a book for adults, unless it was a spoof, but it can more easily be used in children's books. For example, my friend and hugely successful colleague, Elizabeth Laird, uses this approach. Even her dialogue uses a very down-to-earth tone, the way that people today do speak. It works for her and creates a lovely simplicity of language.

NOTE: whichever of the above methods you use, someone will disapprove. Someone will want you to be more or less "authentic". Sometimes this is because most people don't actually know how people spoke at any given time in history; sometimes this is because you'll never satisfy a genuine expert. It's the same, as I know to my cost, with writing a local dialect or Scots language. You cannot do it correctly without alienating those who don't speak with that voice; and you cannot alter it without alienating those who do speak in that voice.

One should wear one's research lightly, but how lightly is lightly? There will inevitably be disagreement as to what is too much. My own approach, and one which reviewers have picked up favourably, is that I want to know everything but I don't want to show everything. I want to know what the buildings were made of, even if I'm never going to tell you. I want to know what utensils people ate from and what they ate, even though I will not explain every detail to you. If I don't know, I can't feel, and if I can't feel, I can't make you feel.

So, do your research and do it thoroughly. But never let us know just how much you did. Give only as much detail as you need to paint your picture but do paint it richly. That sounds like a paradox but it's one you have to get your head around. You have to find your own way, while thinking always of your reader. Draw him into the story with the richness of your story-telling, but don't ever make him think he's in a history lesson.


Choose your year. It's not enough to tell yourself that the story is set "in the mid 18th Century". If you don't decide on the exact year and even month, you won't know whether there was a king or queen, whether the country was at war or not, what huge political issues were frightening or exercising people. Even though there were no news channels, iphones and Twitter, and even though lots of rural people would be slow to hear bits of news, it's not realistic for your characters to be lolling around drinking mead and not seeming to realise that they were a year into the Wars of the Roses...

DAN - I hope I've reassured you that the sort of HF you might like is published and does well. Maybe Catherine Hughes can recommend some specific titles? So, no, you certainly don't have to avoid the HF tag and think of it as lit fic. Though it can be literary as well - there's every "level" out there.

Do add recommendations for HF that follows any of the approaches I've mentioned. By the way, Cathereine has started a new blog which will eventually have loads of her reviews in categories - I think I'll ask her to be my unofficial assistant whenever I need suggestions of books to illustrate a point!

Zounds! Hark! Doth the clock chime? Methinks a beverage calleth. Would that coffee had thus far been discovered by people of these fair isles...


Catherine Hughes said...

Wow, I am erudite! I have to confess I googled for the exact definition of that as I wasn't sure but now feel deeply complimented.

Diana Gabaldon was an interesting one. I've not really read her stuff - didn't manage to get into it when I tried - but I know she is highly acclaimed. Browsing her latest book in Waterstone's, I noticed a tendency towards using more archaic phraseology (rather than individual words) in the narrative and not just the dialogue, when writing those portions of the book that were set in the past (it's a time slip novel). Another author who writes these timeslips is Barbara Erskine. I've read most of her books and she does a similar thing, alhough in her case it is less obvious.

Paula Brackston's Book of Shadows tells the story of a nearly immortal witch and so moves between the various time periods of her life. When returning to her childhood, Brackston uses plenty of archaic language as I recall(I gave the book away so can't double check) in the dialogue. I do remember that it was jarring, but that it provided a very good reminder to the reader that the time period had changed since the last chapter!

Kate Mosse is a fabulous writer and she smatters just enough French and archaic language in the historical portions of her books to make them utterly realistic. For me, at any rate - I think a lot of this is a matter of individual opinion as to how intrusive certain styles / words can make a novel tough going.

I've also read (and given away) Heretics Daughter by Kathleen Kent. I ploughed through it but found it very dull. I can't remember whether that was because of the writing (I know there was some archaic language used) or just because the plot seemed so flat. I believe it was generally well-received, so it may just be me.

Chatting to the staff in Waterstone's yesterday, we came to the conclusion that most historical novelists use archaic language only in dialogue whilst keeping their narratives contemporary in style. Christian Cameron, Bernard Cornwell, Simon Scarrow and Conn Iggulden (none of whom I have read although my husband has, and he recommends them all) were among those mentioned.

Overall, I reckon that a skilful blend of language is the best way to enthral modern readers whilst giving them a sense of immersion in the time period you are writing about is the key, but that reserving the old-fashioned words for use in dialogue is a trend that has probably developed for a reason!

But that's just my opinion, of course.

Cat (who is wishing she'd kept some of the Jean Plaidy novels she used to read as a teenager to see how she did it!)

Catherine Hughes said...

Eeek - I got lost in a couple ofmy won sentences there! Sorry! sometimes my enthusiasm overwhelms my grammar station!

Oh, and please do come and visit my blogs here and here - I would really appreciate the feedback!

Cat (hoping that her HTML has worked!)

Unknown said...

Quentin Tarantino changed history rather violently(literally) with his latest movie, "Inglorious Basterds" and it was brilliant. I'm pretty sure he upset a few people in the process, but he gave the past a big enough tug that it was easy to accept his changes and enjoy them.

He even spoke about it in an interview. The idea for the script had been with him for a long time and when he realized what his characters were going to do, he stopped writing. It took him a long time to allow himself to change history as much as he did.

csmith said...

Ooh -- this is something I feel strongly about. Mainly because I end up in strongly worded arguments over the veracity of language.

See -- so far I've written (but not published) two very different stories. One is set in 1830's Hong Kong, and the other in 1490's Florence.

For the 1830's Hong Kong novella -- which was written in the first person from the POV of an upper class English protagonist -- I was terribly careful to ensure that my wording was reasonably accurate. This is because English in the 1830's is quite similar to English now, and it is from a first person POV. Therefore it did not make sense to put a more modern construct on his words.

The 1490's Florence novel is what keeps on getting me into trouble with historical purists. See, I wrote it in modern English 3rd person(avoiding anachronistic objects etc, but NOT language) because 15th century Italian and modern day Italian are similar enough that writing it in 15th century English would be a horrible unintelligible and highly illogical pursuit. What I tried to do with the spoken language and thought on this one, was to mimic the cadences of Italian, so that the pattern of the sentence "sounded" correct, but the word use made sense. I also figured that because it was 3rd person, it would not jar as if it were first person, as you're outside the character's head.

Now I have NO idea if that makes any sense -- it is only my point of view. Just figured they could be two ways of contrasting HOW someone picks their language.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for a timely post. I was just pondering such questions today!

Whirlochre said...

Thanks, this is very close to home.

Plus, you made me think of Shaggy — zoinks — and I always welcome an Unexpected Shaggy Intervention.

Anonymous said...

'So, get over it,' about sums up my opinion, too.

I'm a writer. I'm not a parent (for anyone's kids by my own). I'm not a teacher. I'm not a historian. I'm not striking a blow for social progress. I'm not a role model or even a particularly interesting human being.

I sit around and invent lies. My only goal is that they be convincing lies. If you want history, read history. If you find the damn thing on the Fiction shelf, don't come crying to me that Einstein's 12-year-old neighbor Olga didn't really discover the Theory of Relativity or that Napoleon wasn't 16 when he conquered Australia.


Sally Zigmond said...

Okay, I'm going to take a deep breath and try not to scream.

From where do people get these silly, blinkered,ideas about HF? Where have they been living for the past fifty years? No, not you, Nicola. Your post is clear and informative, if understandably more of a basic introduction.

I write HF myself--have done for years--and have written, spoken and pontificated generally a huge amount about the topic--even organised a conference. I have interviewed and got to know many well-known historical novelists of all kinds. I can bore Britain, nay the World, about HF.

I have also been much involved with The Historical Novel Society ( since it was formed over 10 years ago. I edited The Historical Novels Review for several years; I then was a reviews editor. Although I have cut down my involvement because of my writing commitments, I am still a reviewer and member.

There are as many different types of historical fiction as there are readers and writers. (Barbara Erskine, for example, writes what is known as Time Slip.) Within the HF genre there are very many sub-genres, each with its own prerequisites. So one cannot say, definitely what HF should or should not be.

The Society produces four issues of The Historical Novels Review (their reviews magazine) per year. There are hundreds of titles reviewed in each issue, including YA and children's historicals. You would be amazed at the variety on offer--and not self-pubbed either. They are not reviewed in the print magazine. In addition, its twice-yearly magazine, Solander, is a treasure house of features.

To say that all HF is full of gadzookery is very heavy-handed. Most HF writers use their extensive research well and don't spill it all over the page. It should be like salt--essential for flavour but not overbearing. I agree with everything you say, Nicola, but for further information, I would ask anyone to take a look at the society's website with a view to becoming a member. Although many HF writers are members, its mainly aimed at readers.

PS. I thought The Heretic's Daughter was absolutely brilliant. Boring? Not a bit of it.

And Jean Plaidy doesn't stand up so well in this day and age. (I did so recently for research into an article. It's all a bit twee, although I adored her books when I first read them. Philippa Gregory, IMHO, now wears her crown.

Unknown said...

Wow! This information is infinitely valuable. I'm currently working on my third draft of my first major Historical Fiction novel and have I made some major Faux Pas! (Um, what’s the plural of faux pas?)

*runs back to do [even more] revising*

JaneF said...

Such a lot of good points! Thanks Nicola. The king-with-two-heads bit really made me laugh.

I have just finished reading The Observations by Jane Harris. I think the voice of the main character Bessy (a teenage Victorian maid) is brilliant in that.

Re use of dialect - what really grates with me is when an author uses the wrong dialect. In some novels, for example, the whole of Scotland seems to be populated by Glaswegians.

Jo Treggiari said...

I haven't read much historical fiction although I am hoping that Georgette Heyer's regency novels count.
I think they show a light touch with the details of the time (although it is clear that her research was exhaustive), some factual spillover- the Prince Regent, Beau Brummell, and other historical luminaries make guest appearances in a few of the novels, and in my opinion just the right amount of period slang and in particular cant (used by highwaymen and thieves) to spice up the language. It takes a short while to understand some of it but she cleverly puts it into context and there's a rhythm there which makes the unfamiliar words easy to decipher.

Sally Zigmond said...

Of course, Georgette Heyer's novels count! She was the mistress of Regency Romance--and has never been surpassed.

Emma Darwin said...

Of course Heyer counts! :-) She's an exemplar of how to wear research lightly, specially in the later ones. That's partly because by then she was so steeped in the stuff that she didn't actually have to go and find out the basics: she knew them, as she knew her own basics.

With voice, the further back you go in history, the more you can't just try to reproduce what we know of how they spoke then. This is particularly true of books set before the novel came into being, because the novel was the first form which was trying to reproduce conversational speech of ordinary people, not stylised in some way (as comic/noble or whatever.) I write a mean pastiche 15th Century letter, but it would be unreadable for a whole novel. On the other hand, in The Mathematics of Love it wasn't so hard to pick up the cadences of early 19th century prose from both memoirs and fiction of the time. But even then, having read lots, I put it away and concentrated on hearing my narrator speak: analysis is all very well, but you have to find some kind of synthesis of the voices of 'now' and of 'then', and I think that's an instinctive process, not one of reasoning.

When you're talking about research, yes, the key is to be convincing: make the reader believe you know it as well as you know your own time. And if you make little slips which the reader spots, then the contract between reader and writer - that you will deal honestly and faithfully with them, as Gardner puts it - is broken. Their belief (or rather suspended disbelief) and involvement in the world leaks away, and they'll stop reading. And, indeed, you may have to take account of the fact that modern readers won't believe what is actually true - for example, my US editor queried the fact that a 15th century couple were 'married at the church door' - she didn't know the history of marriage - so I had to bring the point in, in a way which made it a clear statement from a character, rather than just a bit of choreography which might have looked like a slip. Another reason for doing research properly is that if you're avoiding being specific, for fear of being wrong, then your writing will have that grey, blurry generalised quality which is death to vividness; it's in the vividness of believable detail (Gardner again) that makes readers buy into the believability of the whole story and world. On the other hand, you have to leave the research behind, as Heyer did so well, or the story will get bogged down in info dump.

It's extra-specially tricky if you're doing a Jean Plaidy, and using real historical figures as your characters. Margaret Atwood's ethics for Alias Grace are similar to many such writers': you can't change the known facts, and the main events must be suggested by but in the spaces between the facts you're at liberty to invent, provided you don't contradict them. Which is just as well, because there's nothing drearier than the bio-pic approach, animating puppets in nice frocks for readers who just want their history 'lite', rather than writing an actual novel that would live and breathe even if the reader had never heard of a single character before and had no idea that their originals once walked the earth. An absolutly masterly demonstration of how to do that with real people is Hilary Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety, and now (I gather, as I haven't read it) Wolf Hall.

There is, of course, a vital distinction between what are actually the facts, and what is in fact the historical record: what someone then chose to record or interpret. Elizabeth Woodville, for instance, has always had a bad press, but when you look at the facts, as opposed to what people said about her and what she did, it doesn't stand up. Which is what made me want to write A Secret Alchemy.

Emma Darwin said...

Ultimately, we're writing novels, not history, and your first duty is to make the novel work as a novel: to apply those standards to your plot, character, ideas and prose. If people complain, tell them to go and read a history book. Trust me, as the narrator says in Jeanette Winterson's The Passion: 'Trust me; I'm telling stories...'

Dan Holloway said...

Oh dear, my original comment from this morning seems to have been lost - I came a and thanked you profusely whilst rushing round the office. I am extremely grateful.

- on language "whichever you choose, someone will disapprove" is a wonderful thing for all writers to remember - we can't please everyone so work out our key audience, and try to please them is probably a good rule?
- it struck me reading what you say about language that the same is almost certainly true of contemporary fiction and dialect. Irvine Welsh, Paddy Clarke, and James Kelman all come to mind. The difference, I suppose, is the expectation of the reader - are HF readers a really demanding bunch?

- changing history - very good advice. As you may know, my novel Songs from the Other Side of the wall opens on New Year's Eve of 2006/7 as Romania is about to join the EU. There is a skirmish in the massive crowd that's gathered in Bucharest to mark the occasion, and one of the protagonists dies. There WERE massive celebrations, there WAS racial tension between Romainans and Hungarians as a result of Romania joining the EU - but there were no such skirmishes. I discovered a review a few days ago that blithely referred to my book as being "set during the 2006 Bucharest riots" - which just goes to show how fiction can influence people's perception of history.

Anyway, off to read the comments. Will be back - wonderful and hugely informative post.

Dan Holloway said...

Cool, comments read & digested -

First - Nicola, your "know don't show" with research - yes - that's exactly how I was taught to write essays for Finals - one of my tutors told us (and it seemed utter pseudo-mystic nonsense when he first said it to us as spotty freshers) that if we knew everything about a subject, we could go into Finals and write our essays without stopping to give a single fact but the research would show. It sounds like utter garbage - but it's actually 100% true - I don't know how but it is. I's EXACTLY the same as creating a world in SF - if you've researched your world inside out and backwards you never need to explain any of the terms you use, or the concepts - the characters' actions are enough for us to understand - we get carried along by their conviction. I'd never until reading this applied it to HF

@Catherine - thank you for the examples - alas, Kate Mosse is one of the writers who switched me off HF - I will go back and give her another chance :)

@Sally - apologies *wears his dunce's cap dutifully*. I would point out that to play the faux naif is a great way of being a touchstone for a super post like this, and personal shame is a small price to pay - but there was nothing faux about my naif-ness - I genuinely have struggled every time I've been given HF to read. I struggle with a LOT of lit fic as well, though over sentencecraft - I think I subvocalise too much and any form of parataxis REALLY interrupts my reading experience unless the cadence of the words is absolutely perfect - and I must have been reading the wrong books but, the English Patient aside (is that HF?), I have yet to find a work of HF that pulls that off. Which is NOT true of books written in the past, with which I rarely have a problem.

@Emma - I love the Winterson quotation. It reminds me of Mark Billingham talking about the (in)accuracy of policing methods in his Thorne novels - his answer was simply "Yes, but I write fiction"

Another 2 QUESTIONS that have arisen as I've read this:
1. When does HF start (or end)? Is "The Line of Beauty" HF, for example?
2. What differentiates HF from lit fic set in the past? I thinbk that's what I was getting at with my original question about whether it boild down to reader expectations, and what those expectations are. So, for a writer, the very practical question is "When do I pitch my book as HF and when as lit fic?"

Thank you

David John Griffin said...

Most interesting: the comments as well as the post. i don't know much about historical fiction; not a genre I'd dare to write in for sure; and the only HF book I've ever read was in the 70's, I think. I remember it being thoroughly enjoyable at the time, The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier.


Jane Smith said...

Brilliant post, Nicola. As usual!

First, I'd like to point out that the wonderful Sally Zigmond has her first novel coming out in April, called Hope Against Hope, and it's historical fiction. It's also intelligent, subtle and a cracking good read: I know, I've read some of it. Sally really knows her stuff when it comes to historicals, and she's a thoughtful, brilliant writer: but she won't promote herself, which is why I have to do it!

Dan wrote, "What differentiates HF from lit fic set in the past?" I think that all genres include a literary end: P D James is perhaps the literary end of crime fiction, for example. So it's posssible for a book to be both historical and literary, depending on the writing. Defining "literary" is difficult: I know it when I see it, but trying for a more precise definition is one of those great big cans of worms which even I won't open. Although la Zigmond has made a few good attempts at her own blog, I recall.

Emma Darwin said...

Another 2 QUESTIONS that have arisen as I've read this:
1. When does HF start (or end)? Is "The Line of Beauty" HF, for example?

The Historical Novel Society, I think (with a nervous glance at Sally Z) defines it as fiction set 50 years ago, or before the author's birth, whichever is the shorter.

Margaret Atwood's definition is a novel set in a time before the writer came to consciousness, which I really like because it puts the writer's process at the centre of the definition: it's writing fiction which is sent in a time which you, personally, can't know from experience.

2. What differentiates HF from lit fic set in the past?

Nothing: HF can be anywhere along the spectrum from super-literary to super-commercial. Something like 5 of the last Booker shortlist were hist fic - we really are living in a golden age, to my mind. No longer the snobbery that tended to follow Renault or Michison, or, indeed, Heyer.

But personally, if I have the time, I say that I don't write historical fiction, I write fiction which is about history...


Catherine Hughes said...

Dan - I struggled to get into Labyrinth, but, when I did, I devoured it. By the same token, I'm not yet in the right frame of mind to read Sepulchre - I've tried a couple of times and just can't do it. But I do like Mosse's writing.

Just as Sally found THD wonderful, and I hated it, so much depends upon the individual reader's tastes; there's no right or wrong opinion.

In truth, I am not very good at reading the more literary stuff and could not possibly hope to write it. That incapacity (for want of a better word) closes off a whole realm of fiction to me - fiction that you might find superb.

(I suspect I'm just not intellectual enough to read literary fiction; I struggle horribly with Margo Lanagan too and that's YA!)

David - THOTS (now that's an acronym!) is probably the earliest time-slip novel I can think of. I loved it, too - much more than Rebecca. My Dad lives near the actual house at Tywardreath that inspired the book.


sheilamcperry said...

I was just about ready to settle down as a cosy mystery writer, when this post and comments came along, and now I want to go and dust off my 2008 NaNo novel which was a historical 'time-slip' (didn't know this word before - thanks), set partly in modern times and partly in 14th century Angus. I am glad of the point about deciding on a specific date for the history, as I got quite confused having defined mine as set in the 'mid 14th century'. All I knew was that I wanted it to be after the wars of independence and before whatever the next big national event was, because I wanted to concentrate on local events and what the place was like then.
Personally I like to try not to use anachronistic words when writing history, although sometimes the phraseology of previous centuries (I'm thinking of the 17th in particular) can seem clumsy and stilted, so perhaps the solution to that is to water it down a bit.
As a history graduate I often find historical novels impossible to read, especially when they try too hard to be real or contrarily, when they don't try hard enough! I think there's some sort of balance to be found with this.
Will have another look at that NaNo novel now.
Thanks (I think)

Dan Holloway said...

@Jane - the reason I ask about lit fic/HF and where the divide lies was not to open any cans of worms, but for the very important practical consideration of how an author goes about pitching their book. In other words, if you tell an agent your book is HF, will it be judged according to different criteria from telling them it's lit fic - how do you, as a writer, know what to call it? I guess I'm less concerned about when things become "lit fic" and more concerned with when they stop being HF (in other words, when - if you pitch it as HF - will an agent just go "don't give me that nonsense"?)

The example that comes instantly to mind is Alessandro Baricco's Silk (only because I read it not long back). It's set in the middle of the 19th century but no one could possibly call it HF - so what about it makes it NOT HF?

It's not a purely academic question - this is based on a conversation I'm having with another writer whose WIP is set in the 1780s.

catdownunder said...

Can you change history? Surely that depends on how you do it? Joan Aiken wrote an entire series of books for children based on the premise that the Hanoverian succession did not take place. It allowed her to take other liberties as well - but she remained consistent within the boundaries she set herself.
I can also remember being present at a discussion where Jill Paton Walsh and Michelle Magorian were strongly criticised for writing about WW2 when they had not experienced it.
Now if we were required to keep history exact and experience it then there would be now HF at all - and possibly much less fiction.

Jo Franklin said...

What is the genre name for books like Lemony Snickert Series of Unfortunate Events?
Its not historical but it does have all those archaic words and arch tone. There are quite a few others following in the same footsteps.
What is that type of book called?

Emma Darwin said...

Jo Franklin, I think it would be Fantasy.

Joan Aiken is God, as far as I'm concerned.

Dan, I pitched my work as literary historical fiction, though in booktrade terms it's 'crossover', between lit fic and high-end commercial fic. But I've never had anyone suggest that because it's historical it can't be literary.


Anonymous said...

Yet another excellent post - thank you so much!

I am so pleased that you put the part about research in here; I was recently in a position where I was critiquing someone else's HF. I say I was critiquing his HF, it felt more like a text book - the research was right there in my face in every scene and it really got in the way of what should have been an exciting story.

I once read an excellent analogy for this (afraid I can't remember where - might have been 'Teach Yourself Writing and Publishing a Novel'?), which I will paraphrase here: your research should be like an iceberg - only the tip of it is visible, but it is supported by the hidden parts.

Catdownunder - it sounds like the Joan Aiken series is alternate history, which is a slightly different kettle of fish, but is how she is able to make such a major change to history.

M. M. Justus said...

I've never heard the term "time slip" before -- I have written a novel that falls into that category, but I've always heard it called time travel here in the US. Or is it the same thing?

Phyl said...

Thank you for this wonderful post! I remember reading some advice about the language, where the author said that if you fill the characters' mouths with absolutely authentic dialogue, it's likely to make the readers' eyes "trip over" the words and interrupt the flow of the story itself. So he advised sprinkling just a few "authentic" words here and there in a natural way. The reader would get the feel for the time and place, but wouldn't be concentrating on the language rather than the story.

As far as knowing the history so thoroughly that you don't need to explain any of it, I think Dorothy Dunnett was probably the best I've ever read, for managing that. You got so immersed in the real world of the time she was writing in that it seemed absolutely natural and normal.

ElizabethWest said...

Thanks for this post, Nicola. I've been dying to try my hand at HF but I wasn't sure how to go about it. I had wondered about some of the very things you said. A lot of your advice fits the way I write anyway, and I'm now even more eager to try. :)

SF said...

Oh thank you, Nicola. This post is right up my alley.
I'm writing a YA time-travel novel (time-slip?) set mostly in 19th century colonial Australia and the hardest part so far has been determining the precise year.

My fav historical novel, which probably isn't even one, is Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell. Brilliant!

And a great book for the incidental details is 'What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew' by Daniel Pool.

Dan Holloway said...

Emma, Catherine - thank you for that. I love that Atwood definition too. It feels particularly apt. I was born in 1971 and I know that if I were to write a novel about the 1970s I would have to approach it utterly differently from one about the 1980s, but probably not form the 1960s.

Sally Zigmond said...

Dan. Of course, 'Silk' is HF--and bloody brilliant literary fiction, too.

'Literary' is not a genre. The two are not mutually exclusive. In HF, you get the good, the bad,the indifferent--and the literary.

Thank you Jane, for the kind words. Whilst I love my novel to bits (as one loves one's own baby fiercely and protectively) I can also see clearly its shortcomings and faults, nor could it be classed as anything more than historical froth. If you want the real deal, then please read Emma Darwin's brilliant novels.

Dan Holloway said...

May I note that Marc has just written a post about historical fiction and referencing real characters over at Year Zero - these two posts make a fascinating comparison:

Dan Holloway said...

Thanks, Sally - I suppose I had always thought of the marketing people as being more hidebound - that if a rader were to come across Silk on the HF shelves at Waterstone's they'd be disappointed. I'm intrigued not so much from the aestheitic/artistic point of view as from how agents/publishers/stores/readers see all this - "romance" readers I know have very particular expectations; SF readers don't; I had always thought HF was more akin to the former than the latter - delighted to know it's otherwise!

If Silk is HF, then I guess I AM a fan of HF.

Emma Darwin said...

"If you want the real deal, then please read Emma Darwin's brilliant novels."

Aw, Sally, you say the nicest things! Thank you.

Dan, lordy, no, 'historical' only describes setting, not genre in the plot-sense, at least to the book trade. What's literary enough for Barry Unsworth, William Golding, Toni Morrison, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Maria McCann (new one due, hooray!), Julian Barnes, Blake Morrison, Peter Ackroyd, A S Byatt, Tobias Hill, not to mention Angela Carter... is surely literary enough for the rest of us.

There are some readers who don't get hist fic: as A S Byatt says, when she began to write, she was being lectured by the likes of Kingsley Amis and C P Snow that fiction ought to be addressing serious modern concerns... and then along came the likes of Angela Carter.

We do have something in common with the speculative fiction brigade, but we're not nearly as much all stashed away in a ghetto, as they are when they're called sci-fi/fantasy. I can't imagine Hilary Mantel saying, defensively, that she doesn't write hist fic, as Atwood said she doesn't write sci fi, presumably because she - rightly - can't see that The Handmaid's Tale has much in common with your average spaceshipiana...

Sulci Collective said...

Hi Nicola, valuable post although I have to hold my hands up and say I would almost never read HF. I say this as a trained historian, where any fictional treatment immediately invalidates the word 'history'. To me it is fiction (or literary fiction) set in the past. An imaginative treatment, rather than a projection, if that makes any sense. Of course this is my cross to bear and doesn't invalidate what is a hugely popular genre.

Where I was particularly struck by your post was with regards to language. I'm writing a novel about the Anglo-Saxon and Norman French origins of our language (don't ask!) and every word I use I look up to see where it derives from and its first usage. Do HF writers do this with every word as well? I do find in online writing communities, plenty of anachronistic word usage, even if it does not stand glaringly out like a sore thumb. The further back in history you set your work, the more restricted vocabulary you can draw on. While the closer you get to 1066, the more germanic or french your writing ought to sound. It is so difficult to stick within these parameters and very hard to suppress one's own contemporary idiom. This debate about language also leaches into writing modern works in an English vernacular shorn of all American idiomatic influence - increasingly a harder and harder task.

marc nash

Emma Darwin said...

"To me it is fiction (or literary fiction) set in the past. An imaginative treatment, rather than a projection, if that makes any sense."

Makes lots of sense - just what most of us fictioneers are trying to write.

But it's not as simple as 'set in the past'. Both history writing and fiction writing are narrative ways of trying to portray and understand the past and how it relates to our present, and we both use individual and collective memory and experience to do that. What is often taken as historical fact is actually only the historical record: what people have chosen to write about what happened, and to that extent a novel is only one more thing which someone chooses to write about it. I could quote Ricoeur, but I won't, and instead just say that as Kearney says, both history-writing and fiction are distinguished by 'a certain gap' between the lived experience and the narrative which gives shape to it. Both use the same material, so where they differ is in the quality of that gap: history-writing is about the probable, our best guess at what happened; fiction is about the possible, what might have happened, told (as storytelling always has been) as if it did happen.

The critic Turner extends Hegel's three modes of history writing to the writing of historical fiction - Original (looking at historical events/places as themselves), Reflective (exploring what's perennial and what's historically contingent between 'then' and 'now') and Philosophical (about human beings' attempts to live in consciousness of history).

The kind of hist fic which just uses nicer frocks and nostalgia - 'fiction set in the past' - is only Original. Lots of fun, perhaps, but not much more. But any hist fic worth reading is also Reflective, in that because of the imaginative, 'as if', possible-ness of its form, it can link and explore the constants and variables of human behaviour in ways which history-writing can't. A powerful comparison here is Schama's Citizens with Mantel's A Place of Greater Safety. As Byatt says, Mantel tells what Schama can't, because he cannot know.

And of course something like Mantel's in particular, is also Philosophical: it's all about those characters' attempts to live in history. As Robespierre said in 1793, 'History is fiction.'. Make of that what you will...

Emma Darwin said...

And huge apologies to Nicola for blog-napping so comprehensively.

Very careless of you ;-) to post such a fascinating topic just when I'm revising for my creative writing PhD viva, which is, of course, all about hist fic, starting with A Secret Alchemy (which is, covertly, all about writing hist fic) and going on from there.

Sally Zigmond said...

Emma, I doubt whether Nicola will mind at all. I don't. In fact, I am hugely grateful. You manage to express so succinctly and intelligently what I was trying to say but without the knowledge.

I'm not sure where my own fiction lies in Turner-Hegel terms. Although 'Original' I like to think it's more than pretty frocks and fluttering fans. It like to think it also critically examines the sensibilities of the period I have chosen.

When it comes to using the right words to fit the period, one can't. It would be tedious, may impossible to read. It's a question of balance. One cannot be too rigid, but then again,one has to be ever vigilant. (The English court spoke French (medieval Norman-French at that) exclusively for several centuries and most could barely understand a word the indigenous population said so how does a novelist writing in English today cope with that obstacle? They have to ignore it.) Pre-conquest England had many a mutually incomprehensible dialect--not to mention a great deal of Scandinavian. How would you convey that? You can't. But this is fiction, not history. It's all about balance and 'feel'

Sometimes, the historically accurate word will just not do. One of my characters used the word 'swell' to describe a rich gentleman which was totally authentic for early 19th century England. However, my editor banned it because (and I agreed) it sounded too much like modern American slang to fit comfortably in its context today.

Like all fiction, it's a trick based on instinct and knowledge. Get it badly wrong as some less punctilious writers do--I read a novel set in the seventeenth century which described the sudden feeling of attraction between a man and a woman as an 'electric shock'--and many a reader is jolted out of the necessary suspended disbelief. Yes, I do look up many a word in a dictionary that gives dates of first usage, to see if they were in use in 1840. I check every reference.

It's popular expressions we take for granted today you have to be most careful of, such as 'going off the rails' or 'on the right lines' in the days before railways. You'd be surprised how many (steam)railway-based expressions we use without thinking.

This is a huge subject which needs more time and expertise than I have.

Nicola Morgan said...

Please excuse typos: muscles in shoulders screaming at me to stop typing...

Sorry to have deserted you today. I'm afraid I have a lot going on at the moment, and I am having to keep away from my computer for stretches of time.

Anyway, many thanks to the experts who have waded in and conducted a great discussion. Sally and Emma, thanks for your intellectual take on this topic. Emma - don't apologise: as long as you're on topic, which you are, you are welcome to blog-sit!

There are some things writers should never forget:
1) you will never please everyone - so decide who it is you want to please.
2) within HF where are different styles and conventions - different levels of what we might call "literariness".
3) the story is king / queen: be true to your story first, and your readers an almost neck-and-neck second

Marc - I certainly try to consider every word (which is why I use the Shorter Ox Dict). BUT, I am at the same time trying to create a way of writing which FEELS believable, even if I have to accept that it won't exactly be true. It's all about believability, suspension of disbelief. That's what we have to do in any story-telling, as you know, and there are many ways of doing it. But it must work for the reader - if it doesn't, you're stuffed. Yet every reader is different - the trick, I believe, is to decide which reader(s) you are trying to engage. I think if we get too tangled in whether we've used a word exactly correctly for 1066 or not, we risk forgetting the importance of story and reader. If the reader believes it was authentic, you succeed in engaging him and crossing the existential void between writer and reader, which is my over-riding aim in writing.

The accuracy debate reminds me (slightly) of when I was at school and we had competitions for recitation in ancient Greek and latin. It bugged me to have my vowel sounds corrected - how the hell did Mrs Miller know exactly how Cicero or Demosthenes spoke? Had she heard a recording???? But, a construct had been devised, a stylised version which felt believable.

Also, we could have a debate about the "truth" of "history" - when "history" does mean "story" and when all history is related in different ways by all the participants in it, most of whom presumably believe they are relating what actually happened... (I'm not a historian, so I will run away now!)

Amanda - I feel that film is different. A film audience will suspend disbelief more easily and differently. A book, I feel, must work harder.

Sally - I know Solander and have been interviewed by them re Highwayman's Footsteps. So I like it, too!

JaneF - re dialects and Scots lang(s) - the thing is that you're speaking as an expert, but most readers are not, and if you do it correctly (ie with variations according to area of Scotland) you'll land in trouble. This happened to me when a copy-editor couldn't understand why I had my various Scost chars speaking with two diff varieties of lang, and she changed them ALL to be the same! I started to change them back again and then I chickened out and thought, sod it, I want general readers to get this so I'll have to do it for them. I will NEVER EVER EVER write a single word of Scots again. Except crabbit!!!

Dan - I don't think you need to apologise. You can change your mind (if you want to) but you're entitled to beleive that you don't like a whole range of books. I could also say the same about SF, but then find that actually I love some types of it. As Sally says, there are many, many varieties within HF. Ditto SF.

Jane - good points about "literary" ends of every genre. And everything's a continuum when it comes to degrees of literariness.

Others - I'm glad this post came at such a good time for lots of you!

Nicola Morgan said...

MM Justus asked re the phrase "time slip". Let me define "time slip" and you can see whether it's the same as "time travel"! Time slip is where a character(s) from one time slip back to another era/year. There's a device involved, such as a stone with magic powers, or a magic door. It raises issues of science and philosophy as well. We tend to use the term "time travel" to mean the actual act of travelling through time, a la Doctor Who, for example. Does that make sense?

Time slip is a bit of a cliché in children's books but is still OK if the author finds a new angle and/or writes it brilliantly.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sally said: "It's all about balance and 'feel'" - exactly! Because, as I say probably too often, writing ficition is all about the story and the readers. Not whether we might offend our dead ancestors or any dusty academics who have got nothing better to do than criticise the artistic attempt to inspire, move and engage.

Yay, crabbit is back!!

Emma Darwin said...

That's all right then!

The language thing is all about sleight of hand and you'll never, ever please everyone: pastiche is undesirable and authenticity simply isn't possible, and the further back you go the more you have to find, not a version of the discourse of the time, but some kind of synthesis which takes as much account of our discourse as of theirs. Bakhtin explains how for a fiction writer 'the world is full of other people's words', and the writer has to integrate that discourse with his/her own, in a way which doesn't destroy his/her own voice. And with hist fic you're taking account four ways: other people's words now, historical words then, what readers now think were historical words then (which may be quite different), and somewhere in there needs to be your own voice as well.

And words which change meaning are particularly tricky: as with those words which were 18th century English, but now sound American. And 15th century people used 'take' to mean 'give', which would screw up many a plot!

Time-slip is dreadfully tempting, if you're writing in Reflective mode: the nearest I got to it is in The Mathematics of Love, but I don't think it works in adult fic, unless it's either a joke (Mark Twain's Yankee at King Arthur's Court) or overt fantasy: we just don't believe it, just as we don't believe in ghosts. Parallel narrative is the best one can do, really - which is why I so often use it, writing with one foot in 'now' and one in 'then', and why I say that I don't write historical fiction, I write fiction about history.

M. M. Justus said...

That does sound like the same definition as the American use for the term time travel, then. We refer to "time travel stories" here, for instance. I suspect you don't.

I like the term time slip.

Dan Holloway said...

Emma, thank you for that wonderful comment - Hegel and Ricoeur in one post. Shiver me whatsits!

You absolutely nailed my concerns with Marc's position regarding the truthfulness of history, so I have nothing to contribute. Whenever I debate with him, I tend to use clumsy words like adumbrate - of writers writing the past in the shadow of the present in order to render up its meaning to readers.

Nicola - I haven't changed my mind. I still like the books I like and dislike the ones I dislike. I just hadn't realised many of the ones I liked were HF.

Dan Holloway said...

Emma, on time slip - I think it CAN work in adult fiction. Murakami does very similar things that are not intended as in any way overtly fantastical. He does it with such conviction we never stop to wonder that it's not possible - in his case the truth of the story is more compelling than the truth of physics.

Emma Darwin said...

I have a theory that time-slip in kids fic is basically fulfilling the same function as going-to-school and magic and being evacuated and staying-with-strangers fiction is: all children spend their childhood learning what the rules are of the world in which they find themselves, and all those fictions basically embody that.

Adult fic, maybe it's more about exploring our own world, through the prism of the 'other'.

The WIP is set in a single time and it's weird, not being able to step out of it and show it in another light from another century. Much more of a challenge than my comfort zone of 1819/1976 for The Mathematics of love, and 1471/1995 for A Secret Alchemy. :-(

(where's a challenged-looking smiley when you want one?)

And thanks for the link to Marc's blog - fascinating discussion.

Emma Darwin said...

Going back to how you actually handle historical material in fiction, the big mistake is to think that historical fiction is history in palatable form, history lite, a docu-drama, a bio-pic, or to append a list of sources and references. In striving for academic respectability such fiction is actually confessing to a lesser status, as John Mullan puts it in How Fiction Works. Of course there are books - particularly in children's fiction - which are using fictional techniques to teach history, but if you're at all serious about what you're doing, I would say you should be trying to leave the research behind, as Rose Tremain puts it, not be trying to prove that you've done your homework.

That's why you'll never find a bibliography, or acknowledgements, in my novels. Where fiction comes from isn't the point: the point is where it goes to.

catdownunder said...

Or Emma, you can write a book like Cynthia Harnett's "The Woolpack" or "The Load of Unicorn" etc which are full of detail and still manage to be a good adventure. Of course it only took Harnett about two years to do the research for each book!

Sulci Collective said...

I'm unconvinced by some of the argument above about the inter-relationship of past and present. What does history tell us of the present? Everything and nothing, since we are never quite certain which bit of history will repeat itself when. It is not a prognostic tool, or not a very good one. What does the military history of Afghanistan teach us? Are the Afghans indomitable on their home turf when faced with outsiders? As IRA Matin McGuiness said, "we only have to get through once" - you only have to go against the tide of history once to junk it (the exception that proves the rule - how asinine a logic that is).

To my mind, fiction is less about time and place, but enduringly about emotional intelligence. Whether you choose to have your protagonists operate in the now or in the past is a stylistic choice to best offer the author and reader the way into human psyches and relationships.

And you are right about history really being a story and a fiction of its own. Records are partial and determined by the materials they were committed to. In pre-literate societies we have little record. Then as you say, the victors and the rulers tended to write the documents and to leave the record they wanted to leave. There is no oral history of pikemen, Athenian wives and other members of the lowest economic classes.

I don't want to open up another front around this topic, but I would query the notion that all fiction has to be story and that one has to suspend disbelief. In theatre Brecht went the opposite way and entirely wanted to point out the reality of the theatrical experience and deny the need to suspend one's disbelief. History is not a story, in that it is not a consciously written narrative by its players, only the historians who retrospectively impose a narrative on it. History is a version of events that happened in the past. Events, not a story.

Nicola Morgan said...

This is a fascinating discussion. It would be lovely if we were all in the same room and sharing a couple of bottles of wine! Takes me right back to student days.

Emma - I would like to take you up on your comment, "Of course there are books - particularly in children's fiction - which are using fictional techniques to teach history, but if you're at all serious about what you're doing, I would say you should be trying to leave the research behind". I'm not sure what books you mean. Not novels, I think. There is some narrative non-fiction which is "used" to teach history but children's HF has no different motive from adult HF (in all the forms of fiction for both age ranges) - to tell a story set in the past. (Albeit that there are many, many different ways and reasons to tell the story, as in any genre.) I consider myself sufficiently intellectual, but I would not seek to embellish HF with anything more simple a definition than "a piece of fiction set in the past". And I don't much care whether history is 5 years ago or 500 - and that's for someone else to bother to define if wished. Forgive me if I appear stupid, but I don't recognise the difference between the two poles of your statement: "I don't write historical fiction, I write fiction about history." I love picking to pieces the intricate differences between meanings, but this one has gone way over my head! Sorry, but HF is a story set in the past and there are many different ways of doing that.

Marc - I am 100% in agreement with the first 3 paras of your last comment. I have always quibbled with anyone who says we learn anything accurate from history because it is logically impossible for history to repeat itself and for circs to be the same.

Great discussion, folks! But, the original post was designed to help beginner HF writers know the conventions and ropes. I hope it dod so. I hope, more, that all writers of any genre read widely and analytically within their genre - then they will know what to do and why, or (better) be able to create their own voice. A believable and engaging one with whatever degree of "authenticity" they have chosen in an informed state of mind.

Sulci Collective said...

raises teetotal glass of lemonade to Nicola for facilitating wonderfully as per usual - oh no, that's a statement of fact drawn from recent history! and so the wheel spins on

Hugs in the here and now, albeit virtual ones


Emma Darwin said...

Ah, Cat, how right you are about Cynthia Harnett - joy!

Marc, I've taken you up on your statement about Brecht more appropriately over on Refer-hensible, so I won't here.

Nicola, a propos kid fic teaching history, I was thinking of the slightly formulaic series of novels centred on a character who's involved in some known historical situation (Great Exhibition, the Plague, WW2, etc.). I wouldn't want to dis them - my children have enjoyed them - but it seems clear to me that they're sold as much as history as they are as fiction: not moving on from the historical but illustrating it. But it's not a part of the market I have more than a parent's knowledge of, so I absolutely bow to your expertise.

"I don't write historical fiction, I write fiction about history"

The thing is, 'history' is an ambiguous word: it can mean the place called the past, but it can also mean process: what the flow we call time does to lives and worlds. And it can also mean large books about the past which aren't novels.

So what I mean is that I don't just write fiction with a setting which is a place in the past, I write fiction which about history as process. What really interests me in writing is the relationship of the past to the present, and vice versa: the thinness of the veil between 'now' and 'then', which you can also think of as 'here' and 'there'; how knowing about the past changes our present; what's perennial and what's contingent in human emotion and experience across time, and so on. If you stick to a single time, you've always got the limitation that you can't, authentically, also stand outside that time and show it for what it is in its place in the larger processes. At least, if you do then it stops being a novel, because the novel is always about the particular and the individual and their experience in their own moment. Which is why, to date, I've written parallel narratives, with one foot in 'then' and one in 'now': exploring the same ideas and human situations in more than one time means you can actually explore history as a process, rather than just as a setting.

The WIP is only one time - ten days, in fact - but the parallels are so clear I'm hoping that readers will make them for themselves!

To be honest, though, when I say "I don't write historical fiction, I write fiction about history," I'm partly doing a Margaret Atwood, as it were: distancing myself from some sorts of fiction which, on setting alone, I might get lumped with. I was amazed to have people ask me 'What period do you write?', as if I would always do the same: I want to say different things about history, and that needs different periods to say it with. Also, quite a lot of historical fiction - the bad stuff - does just use history as back-drop, and imports modern sensibilites, mores and tastes so satisfy readers, while stuffing them into frocks and carriages because it's more fun. (It is more fun. Sex is way more amusing to write, if trickier, when you have to get the corsets off. Or leave them on.) The truly dreadful 'Regency' stuff, which would make Saint Georgette turn in her grave, is a case in point.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I don't think anyone mentioned McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" yet. The language is archaic enough to be off-putting or engrossing, depending on your disposition. Supposedly it's constantly referencing very specific historical events, but I don't recall any "I AM A RESEARCHER DOING RESEARCH" markers.

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - those "novels" that you mention, if they're the ones I'm thinking of (some of them published, I think, by Scholastic)are written as "narrative non-fiction". They are indeed designed as a way of teaching history, but are not viewed as fiction, and certainly not as novels. I have a bit of an issue with narrative non-fiction, as I think it is in some way duplicitous, and would be better either as fiction or as non-fiction. So, they are not HF, as far as I'm concerned, and the people who commission them!

Re your "history about history" point - that's clearer now, thank you! But you could also write HF about history...

Re the "doing a Margaret Atwood" - surely any novelist wants to avoid being lumped with any group of novels which are nothing like what she or he writes? It does seem to me that your definition does not mean that you don't also write HF, as your readers will understand it, just BETTER and more interesting HF than many others. But that's inevitable for a good writer: you will be better than some of your colleagues, and the readers won't know this until they read your work and see all the fab reviews. So, on that basis, I wonder why you don't want to be seen as writing HF, as Margaret Atwood doesn't want to be seen as writing SF. (She doesn't write SF, in my view anyway. I think what she writes is completely different, future fiction, as my Sleepwalking is.)

Is this because some people look down on HF because it's a "genre"? In the same way as they look down on crime fiction (lumping it all together as they do so)? If so, maybe I'm just used to being looked down on, because of course writing YA is so easy, and as for kids' books... So, I'm used to being lumped. I've got over it. well, no, I haven't, but I deal with it by saying, "There are many sorts of YA books and mine are serious and good ones. Thank you very much."

I would not be amazed by people asking "what period do you write" and actually no one ever has. If, as I do and as you do, I have written books set in different periods, I would simply tell them, but I can perfectly well see why a non-writer might think that a writer who chooses historical settings and themes might stick to one beloved period.

When HF uses history as a backdrop and imposes modern mores etc, I think we should just call it bad HF, and move on. I have to deal with the fact there's YA that's "bad" or at least "different in a way that I don't rate" but I try to deal with it by simply writing the best book I can, in the way that I think is interesting, and gathering the right readers to me.

Your writing sounds fascinating and brilliant, and this conversation has horribly reminded me that I haven't read your work, and I meant to when you first commented on my blog ages ago. So, I am about to order Secret Alchemy. However, from the blurb on Waterstone's etc it does sound rather gloriously like HF, and HF of which you should be very proud! *runs and hides*

Fab discussion! Thank you! And I did go over to Marc's blog post too - really interesting. Didn't comment because you seemed to be doing v well without me (and talkign about works which i hadn't read...)

Catherine Hughes said...

I can't believe that, in all of this, I have failed to mention Sharon Penman.

'Here Be Dragons', is about Joanna of Wales and her marriage to Llewelyn Fawr and, although not the first of Penamn's books that I read as a teenager, it was the one that made the greatest impression on me. It made me want to be Welsh!

That I later met and married a Welshman and am now raising four Welsh-speaking, very Welsh children, is curious. It is from Penman's book that I learned of archaic Welsh law (which has not, apparently, to this day been repealed) that makes me legally Welsh through my marriage, and entitled to the same benefits of any other Welshwoman under Welsh law (this being from the days when Welsh women had greater rights to divorce than their English counterparts - all very irrelevant nowadays but a little quirk of the law that I love).

I've just picked up my original copy of the book, kept all these years, and, flicking through it, realised that I now know and love many of the places that Penman mentions. I went to see what is believed to be Joanna's sarcophagus at Beaumaris and have visited Criccieth Castle on a several occasions.

If I were ever to write a time-slip novel, it would involve Joanna of Wales. Barabara Erskine, though, chose her daughter, Elen.

Emma Darwin said...

Nicola -

Hadn't realised the Scholastic series was sold as narrative non-fic, in which case that's fine. Actually, a friend of mine did some for them and they were good. But I agree, I'm uneasy with the genre. I got cross with Thomas Keneally over his Author's Note to Schindler's Ark, because he says that he's using novelist techniques because that's what he knows how to do, but none of it is fiction 'as fiction would debase the record'. Only, exactly as you say, a novel by its nature makes everything 'as if', and seamless, so you can't tell how his ethical distinctions of what he has invented and what he hasn't, work out in practice

You're right, of course, I do write HF, and say so as the quickest label for what kind of beast I write --- at the moment. The 'I write fiction about history' is a more subtle point for festival sessions really, and for people who don't get parallel narrative (which I admit is a very odd beast in some ways, though in other ways it's the ultimate fiction about history).

Atwood outraged the sf/f brigade when she said that, but although I understood why they were cross, I also saw what she meant and why she said it. The trouble is that questions of genre and - what shall we call it - literary level, get all confused: even the trade uses 'commercial' and 'genre' as more or less as synomyms, so that anything with a certain setting (history, space), or obvious plot style (thriller, romance) is liable to be read only for how it does those obvious things, not for all the other (and perhaps more interesting) things one's doing. As Pratchett says, you can write all sorts of complicated, sophisticated and profound things in your fiction, and if you put one lousy dragon in it, you're shelved in Fantasy forever.

Sulci Collective said...

Just wanted to add that I use the odd archaic word in my contemporary fiction and I use it archly, normally to do with Greek or Latin etymologies.

For example within chapter 1 of my novel, my heroine refers to an arcane usage of the word 'barrow' as "a castrated male pig". It kind of got over where she was at mentally as she buries a drunk boyfriend in a mound of flowerpot soil and coffee granules, before threading thorned roses i it for him to wake up to (gives the morning scratch a whole new inference).

Nicola Morgan said...

Emma - "As Pratchett says, you can write all sorts of complicated, sophisticated and profound things in your fiction, and if you put one lousy dragon in it, you're shelved in Fantasy forever." I totally relate! It is very very annoying. But inevitable. And the less widely-read the populace, the more likely it is to happen.

Leila said...

What an interesting discussion. I'm currently trying to write a novel which partly takes place in the English Civil War (the rest takes place in 2042). I'm unfortunately on a very tight deadline, and I feel I need so much more time, not only to get to know the period, but also to work out how best to convey that period to the reader. Language is a real issue; I'm not so sure that the characters ought to 'talk like the reader does', they aren't like the reader, after all, they are immeasurably, inconceivably different. Language defines people as much as people define language, and it seems to me that a historical novel should tackle this in some way.

Emma Darwin said...

Nicola, I guess it's partly just the problem we all have that novels are complicated, multi-layered things, and everything to do with persuading people to buy them - synopses, covers, blurbs, straplines, bookshop categories - can't help but be much simpler.

Leila, I rather agree with you, tho' I think you have to differentiate between the voices of the characters and the voice of the narrative. It seems to me that if part of the reason one's writing HF is for it to be about then and there, about otherness, then the voice/s need to embody that as much as the frocks and the mores must, and they won't if they're purely contemporary. But with voice, of course, it's also the medium of transmission, so it has to work on that level, as well as being convincing in your sleight-of-hand evocation of the time. But whether your sleight-of-hand works is very dependent on the reader as well. No doubt Dickens thought he was writing tremendously French and 18th century dialogue in Tale of Two Cities, but to us it's 90% Dickens...

Julian Barnes said of Arthur and George that he wasn't writing a novel which was aiming to put the reader back in the 19th century, but one which is a modern novel about events in the past. I see what he means - and of course it's his decision - and his very beautiful, clear prose isn't contemporary in an obvious way anyway. But I do think doing it that way is missing one of the most central reasons for reading and writing hist fic.

JaneF said...

Phew, so much to digest here! (I'm not complaining...) I have a question that I hope one of you knowledgeable people can answer - is there a term for novels that are set in the present (more or less) but involve the characters looking into a historical mystery? That's what I'm writing at the moment, but I have just been describing it as a 'mystery' because the term 'historical mystery' implies that the action takes place in the past.

Re Scottish dialects - I think there are a lot of writers who use the correct dialects without confusing the reader and with a light touch (e.g. Ian Rankin) - enough to give a flavour of the cadence of speech but not so much as to be offputting. I think the problem with ignoring differences among Scottish dialects/speech patterns is that a lot of readers of books set in Scotland are Scottish and will notice the inaccuracies. I don't think anyone would suggest making Yorkshire characters speak as if they're Cockneys - and the same levels of difference exist in Scotland.

That being said, the Glasgow voice is so predominant in the media that it's not surprising that a lot of English editors etc. think we should all speak in the same way!

Sulci Collective said...

Re dialect - I love reading kelman et al in their dialect. The English language was not standardised in its spelling until about 1450, so any HF set before then is presumably at liberty to be very provincial in its language.

I've written an unpub'ed novel set in Wakefield and wrote it in dialect. But Part 2 of the novel takes place in internet forums and I was confronted by the fact that we don't write like we speak, as the same character typed his responses in standard English (I resisted him resorting to txt spk). I hadn't foreseen this dilemma and it really stopped me up short.

Rachel Cotterill said...

I have a historical fiction idea at the back of my mind - it's a genre I haven't tried before, and this sort of question has been troubling me. Still, I can't start writing it until I can fund a trip to Chicago (research, you know...) so I have time to work out what my HF style might look like.

Helena Gowan said...

Thank you for this straight forward assessment of HF.

I'm still chuckling about the comment that all of Scotland seems to have a Weegie accent in HisFic Romance. So true!

It appears to be that the call for accuracy seizes to exist when it comes to Scotland and here especially if it comes to the Highlands.

Anyway, great discussion.

Nicola Morgan said...

rachel - I will happily go to Chicago for you. You'd only need to pay Business Class tickets. And a decent hotel. I'll buy my own chocolate. Honest.

Sulci C - Marc - "I was confronted by the fact that we don't write like we speak" - I know and it's very annoying, isn't it?! In all dialogue, of any genre, we have to creat a form that works: it has to feel real yet not be.

Janef - hmm, I'm not sure. I don't think we always have to find a label, though. Mystery sounds fine to me. "Mystery which is partly set in the past" also sounds fine. Sounds intriguing (as long as you make sure the prospective agent or publisher understand precisely).

Emma Darwin said...

"The English language was not standardised in its spelling until about 1450, so any HF set before then is presumably at liberty to be very provincial in its language."

Spelling doesn't get standardised, as in a sense of 'correct' and 'incorrect' till Johnson - the Paston letters, one of the best sources for mid- to late-15th century spelling, based in Norfolk but also London as they rose socially, is very variable even within the same family. Accent affects spelling too, and dialect is different again. The plural of egg in many areas was still 'eyren' or 'eiren' into the 17th century: in Kent, just across the Thames from London, for example.

Which is a good example of why it's so daft to insist on using 'authentic' words. To make your Kentish woman authentic, she has to say 'eyren', but as the modern reader won't understand, you either have to laboriously build in a scene where it's explained, which might not be the right thing to do for all sorts of other reasons and might still make the reader feel info-dumped on, or just gloss it, in more explicit info-dumping. Equally, a Londoner in Kent wouldn't be understood if he said 'eggs', so you have to do the equivalent maneouvre in reverse. All very well if you want to hang a piece of plot on the confusion, but if you don't, you're much better off being 'inauthentic', for the larger good of the story.

Flossie said...

Absolutely fascinating discussion - thank you, Nicola. The question of genre is an interesting one. Emma mentions that it's unlikely that Hilary Mantel would complain of her books being labelled HF, yet Rose Tremain said pretty much exactly that in a recent Bookseller profile: "They are just novels that have a past location and are therefore not swept away by the tide of present day life so fast. This is the great agony of trying to capture the present in a novel - it's a very slow thing to write and present life moves on in a hideously unexpected and overflowing kind of way."

As with Margaret Atwood denying the SF tag, the question of genre is always going to be a vexed one for writers of any quality. You're tossed on the horns of the furious dilemma: HF has a solid base of fans that like to read widely in the genre, so it's easier to pitch as a commercial proposition; meanwhile, its very commerciality (commercialness? Argh) means that the genre also contains more than its fair share of badly written books.

I love the idea that "historical literary fiction" can educate readers by stealth; people who would not normally pick up a novel marketed as "literary" are quite happy to read "historical" novels like Emma's, and can thereby be exposed to writing that's a cut above the supermarket shelves.

Emma Darwin said...

Very interesting that Mantel said that - must look it up. In a sense she's saying 'it's not very different at all,' by the sound of it. And it's certainly true that I don't have to worry that the slang I'm using, for example, is about to go out of date. But I'm not sure I agree with her, in the sense that there IS a fundamental difference when you're writing about a time you couldn't have known yourself, let alone a time you can't even know by talking to people directly.

Mind you, it doesn't do to diss the supermarket shelves: Tesco bought The Mathematics of Love! ;-)

JaneF said...

Thanks Nicola - I will stick with 'mystery', then, with a short description as you suggest. I know what you mean about labels not always being helpful - as demonstrated by the many different views of what constitutes the historical fiction genre.

Kath McGurl said...

This is a brilliant post, and I think will be useful to those of us who write short fiction as well. Occasionally the women's mags use fiction with a historical setting - I sold one once set partly in 1850s potato-famine Ireland. Therefore hope you don't mind but I'll soon be linking to this from my blog.

I'd recommend Emma Darwin's novels - I see she's already been praised in this thread! and also Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall which I was blown away by.

Getting the language right is so important - too contemporary and it won't feel historical as well as not being accurate; too dated will stop the reader from being able to identify with the characters. Mantel I thought got it spot on in Wolf Hall (well she must have got something right to win the Booker with it) and her characters really came alive.

Flossie said...

@Emma, regarding supermarkets, that's pretty much my point; the sort of quality writing usually associated with literary fiction, and therefore traditionally harder to sell (both into bookstores and onwards to the general public), may have a better chance commercially in historical fiction. (Plus the jacket design for Mathematics of Love was gorgeous, which can't have harmed its standing with Tesco!).

Sorry for not being clearer on that quote - it was Rose Tremain, not Hilary Mantel, but I thought it was interesting because they have a similar body of work: several great historical novels, but also a fair few contemporary stories. I read the statement as Tremain essentially saying she writes what you describe (from Turner) as "Reflective" HF - that she's looking at perennially urgent human questions, but wants to do so against a less hectic backdrop. Personally, I agree with you on the fundamental difference.

Flossie said...

(Actually, that should have said that lit fic is traditionally harder to sell all the way along the chain - agent and publisher before one even reaches a bookstore.)

Unknown said...

FWIW, not only did I enjoy your post, but I also learned a lot.

I am 267 pages into the first draft of my first novel. The story begins in the 16th century Mayan jungle with a Spanish priest, and ends in the 21st century White House. Although I describe my piece as a supernatural thriller, it is also a historical fiction.

As a "newbie author" I have struggled to make the 16th century dialogue as authentic as possible. I cut all conjuctions from my language, kept away from modern words like okay etc. However, after reading your post, I worry that maybe my dialogue is still not where it needs to be.

I guess what I am trying to say here, and not very eloquently, is thanks for the tip about the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. I have a feeling it will be very useful during the editing process.

FWIW, you've also hooked me as a follower. Newbies like me can use all the help we can get. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge. It is appreciated more than words can say.


Nicola Morgan said...

Andrea - have you been reading any 16th century stuff? It should give you a flavour and a flavour is all you need (as we've discussed - even though many writers would want to achieve more than a ,flavour, but it's not essential depending on your market.) Glad you're following the blog - thank you for your kind comments!

Womagwriter - I absolutely agree that short fiction writers would need to use just the same techniques.

FlossieT - v good points. Including about the jacket design being so important, esp for supermarkets. Emma - do you know to what extent the jacket design was aimed in that direction? Some books have separate supermarket covers, for example. Was it a surprise (pleasant, of course!) when supermarkets took it? Do you think the title also helped, as maths seems (weirdly) to sell in titles? Sorry, have gone off my own topic now, but I suppose it goes to genre and perception. Maybe we should have another post re this!

Emma - thanks for informing us so well. And you are right not to diss the supermarket when they make the right choices!

Emma Darwin said...

Nicola, I don't think TMOL's jacket was aimed at Tesco, although it was very cleverly and delicately made more commercial than the very literary-looking hardback. Everyone was v. pleased when Tesco took it, but no one thinks it's my core market, shall we say. But with luck and a canny commercial publisher like Headline Review you CAN sell into two different pigeonholes...

But the title does intrigue people: they think 'love' and 'mathematics' are opposites, which wasn't what I meant at all. It wasn't the original title - though it is a line in the book - and it took me three months to admit that my editor was right to insist on it.

What was definitely aimed at that end of the market was the strapline on A Secret Alchemy: "Two Princes in the Tower, One Woman in Search of the Truth". It was felt that the front needed to say something about the P in the T, to draw people in. Which makes lots of sense, thought it did garner some disappointed reviews on Amazon by people who discovered that it's not about them, in one sense, at all, but rather about their mother and uncle and the world which murdered them.

Emma Darwin said...

Going back to the point about voice in historical fiction, it's just as much about balance and cadence as it is about which words you must or mustn't use. IF you get the rhythm right, no one will get picky about whether you can or can't use the word 'eventual' in 1547, and/or use it in that sense.

And remember that just because no one wrote down contractions like 'doesn't' and 'couldn't' doesn't mean they didn't say things that way, and you might want to too. They're not evoking conversational speech and you are. 'Don't' first appears written down in 1660, but you wouldn't know it to read most hist fic.


Unknown said...

Thanks Emma. I will tuck all these helpful comments in a little box, so I can refer to them during the editing process.


Quillers said...

Nicola, this is a great article, and extremely helpful, especially as I've started dipping my toe in the 'historical writing' water. I hope you won't mind me linking to it from my 'resources' page on my website.