Thursday, 6 March 2014

I came across the following book recently and found it extremely interesting and useful. It combines a consideration of the current state of the genre of historical fiction as well as practical advice about how writers can develop their work.

‘Writing Historical Fiction’ by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott

Historical novels date back to antiquity, or at least that is the argument of Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott in their fascinating ‘Writing Historical Fiction’. The historical novel is a development from ancient stories and myths, with the joint purposes of entertainment, instruction and explanation of the world. This volume, divided into three parts, includes pertinent commentary on the origins, fashions, purposes and fortunes of historical fiction over time up to its current immensely popular status, as well as highly practical advice for writers.

In Part 1 Sprott presents some initial reflections on the nature of historical fiction and the attractions of writing novels set in the past. He suggests, along with Italo Calvino that the present is too complicated, fast-moving and unmanageable, whereas the past offers a distant view and ‘will keep still long enough for us to take proper look.’ Brayfield’s reflections include a discussion of how historians of the past have told the stories of ‘winners’ for political or social ends and how many contemporary novels have, through presenting past periods and events from the perspectives of the ‘losers’, undocumented or marginalised people, have created fresh interpretations of history.

In a concise account of the development of the historical novel, Sprott goes on to consider the difficulties of defining historical fiction, offering two possibilities: ‘a fiction in prose (or verse) set in the (distant) past’ of ‘a fiction based on historical fact, using historical or invented characters or both.’ He then provides an excellent survey of key works from ancient to modern times, illustrating the blurring of ‘fact’ and invention contained in many of these. He also explores the purposes of 19th century writers, such as Scott, Pushkin and James Fennimore Cooper, who chose to set novels in the past, to examine or explore national and identities and their countries’ stories. His survey concludes with the work of 20th and 21st century writers (Achebe, Fowles, Rushdie, Pamuk) who have experimented with form and style to present different historical perspectives.

The ‘Guest Contributors’ section contains much pithy comment, advice and discussion from an impressive range of acclaimed writers, who have created works in past settings, some of whom would not call themselves, ‘historical’ novelists. Valerio Massmo Manfredi, for example, questions the validity of the separate notion of an historical novel: ‘All novels are historical because history is everything and everywhere and when we speak of ‘historical fiction’ we are just accepting a category created by the market in order to classify literary expression (bad or good doesn’t make any difference) into genres that are quite captious and questionable.’

Most of these writers stress the responsibilities incumbent on novelists who set their work in the past to provide authentic, plausible and credible characters and situations, well-informed by detailed research. While valuing the freedom to ‘invent’ the unknown, these writers acknowledge the important and different role played by historians and non-fiction writers who must confine themselves to provable evidence. A novelist can go where historians fear to tread, fill in the unknown details, the untold stories, the undocumented lives. Ian Mortimer, who is both an historian and a novelist suggests that historical fiction and history come together, ‘because what is ‘historical’ be it fact or fiction – is not primarily about the past. It is about us and our awareness of time. If you are interested in the human race, in people, this is essential. How can you understand what society can endure without reference to an event such as the Black Death or slavery? How can you appreciate the cruelty of mankind without reference to the Romans, the Crusades, the Holocaust or Stalin’s purges? You have to have a historical view of mankind to understand what we are, in all our dark secrets as well as our pride and splendour.’

Part Three offers very practical advice for writers on the processes of writing, finding inspiration, doing research, lists of sources and resources, as well as exercises and instructions about getting published.
‘Writing Historical Fiction’ contains everything an unpublished writer needs in terms of inspiration and advice to pursue this broad area of literary endeavour.

Brayfield, C & Sprott, D (2014)  Writing Historical Fiction - A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion  London; Bloomsbury Academic

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