Friday, June 22, 2012

Turning Historical Fact into Fiction

Sebastian Faulks has described himself as a novelist whose books happen to be set in the past. ‘For me,’ he said, ‘the use of historical settings is to cast the present in a more interesting and broader light.’ People are clearly more important to him than circumstantial detail. Some novels are so deeply researched they seem like non-fiction in disguise. In a romance too much information can kill the story dead by boring the reader. Even so, we must do our research and set the scene as accurately as we can. We can take some liberties, for the sake of the story, but if we veer too far from the facts as we know them, the reader may feel cheated and lose faith in the work. If a mistake crops up, an anachronism, this will jar the reader, and jerk them out of the story back to the present.

It’s wise to avoid controversy or anything doubtful which has a hint of being anachronistic. It hasn’t so much to be correct as to feel correct. E.g: Soldiers did play baseball in the American Civil War. I believe they also played in a Jane Austen novel too. But the reader may found that hard to accept.

Societies traditions, moral mores and customs help to build the picture, but this is where even the most fanatical historian can come unstuck. Many time periods, such as the Regency, have become so stylised that you may actually be considered to have written an historically inaccurate book if you do not follow the “popular perceptions” of the period. Presenting a realistic, complex view of Society during a specific era can be the thing that makes the difference between a passable yarn and a gripping story.

Marie de Medici
It’s surely about striking the right balance. The story is the most important thing, but it must be firmly rooted in its world. It must not simply be a costume drama. I certainly needed to conduct a great deal of research for a trilogy set in Sixteenth Century France. The past must be made as relevant as the present. The problems are the same, human emotion, conflict and behaviour. Falling in love and losing that love are just as painful. Bernard Cornwell said: ‘Essentially the background has to be right because it’s the detail of the background that pins down the fiction in the foreground.’

The Queen and the Courtesan is what might be called biographical fiction, in that I have fictionalised the facts. Marie fell in love with Henry IV, to her misfortune, as it embittered her in a way. Rejection was something she could not deal with, because of experiences she'd suffered as a child. I think the hardest part of writing historical fiction based on fact, is that you can’t simply let your imagination run loose. I usually write character-driven relationship sagas but with this trilogy I had to search out every detail. It was almost like being a detective, finding out what these people were really like, the intrigues they were involved in, and what their motivation was. Fascinating, but scary too at times as I needed to read widely to gain every viewpoint before I could write with any confidence.

Henriette d’Entragues isn’t satisfied with simply being the mistress of Henry IV of France, she wants a crown too. Despite his promises to marry her, the King is obliged by political necessity to ally himself with Marie de Medici, an Italian princess who will bring riches to the treasury. But Henriette isn’t for giving up easily. She has a written promise of marriage which she intends to use to declare the royal marriage illegal. All she has to do to achieve her ambition is to give Henry a son, then whatever it takes through intrigue and conspiracy to set him on the throne.

The Queen and the Courtesan, published 29 June by Severn House, can be found as a paperback or ebook here: 


Maggi Andersen said...

Important to get the balance right with historical fiction. Nice post, thanks Freda.

Deborah Swift said...

I totally agree that sometimes it is hard to get past readers inaccurate assumptions about a period. I suppose I hope that the overall feeling of the period I evoke will persuade readers to look at my version of the period with sympathetic eyes. The Queen and the Courtesan sounds great, and this was an interesting post.