Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Blog CIII (103): The History Ph.D. as Novelist

Editorial Note: Today's posting is the second part of three that represents a return of the "The History Ph.D. as..." series. This essay examines historians who have moved into the world of fiction as novelists. The article is exceptionally long even by internet standards (roughly 4,000 words), so it will be posted on "In the Service of Clio" in three parts. Part one appeared in Blog CII on Monday, November 28, 2011 and part three will be out on Friday, December 2, 2011.

There are bigger concerns such as how well does a historian write fiction? “With difficulty,” Ian Mortimer, observed. Mortimer, who writes fiction under the pen name James Forrester, added, “Anyone with a PhD in history has spent at least seven years being told by university lecturers always to ‘err on the side of caution’ and to suspect all evidence for the past—to the extent that many academic books are more concerned with what we do not know than what we do. The idea of deliberately creating scenarios, events and characters that did not exist in reality is anathema. However, the biggest hurdle a historian has is persuading people that he or she can write a novel."
Mortimer notes correctly that there are good reasons for this skepticism. “Historians are mostly very poor writers. Nothing in a university education teaches us how to write history well, let alone do anything more imaginative. Most historians baulk at the thought because there is nothing firm for them to hold on to, nothing certain and therefore nothing indisputably true. We have to make a huge leap of faith to realise the ‘truth’ that makes historical fiction worthwhile is a deeper, more subtle truth than in history, concerned with the truths of life experience, not facts?”

Cobbs Hoffman agreed. “It’s very different,” she said. “You have to write better.” That requires more time to hone and polish prose. “You have to work harder at it.”

What issues does a writer face in trying to transition from one medium to the other? “Writing fiction was far harder than I could have imagined,” David stated, “and there were moments during the long and torturous edit process when it seemed that Zulu Hart, the first of the trilogy, would never be fit for public consumption.”

His editors told him to back away from historical, facts and narrative. That is a difficult thing for a historian to do. “Eventually I saw the sense of this. I wasn't being asked to sacrifice historical accuracy per se. Just to accept that a historical novel, or any novel for that matter, stands or falls on plot and characterisation; period detail is important, but only in so far as it gives a sense of authenticity. It must remain in the background and never be allowed to dominate the story.”

Does historical fiction do damage to our understanding of the past? That is a real issue that historians writing fiction must consider. “Historical fiction, as a result, often takes liberties with the ‘truth’: it compresses time, invents conversations and motives that real people never had, and generally tampers with the historical record for the purposes of plot.”

The real issue is how much. “The trick is to minimize those liberties, and to make sure that when you're writing about historical figures you “stay true to the spirit of that person,” George MacDonald Fraser, the novelist best known for his Flashman novels, reflected. Fraser is something of the reverse of most of the authors discussed here; he was a novelist/screenwriter who also did history.

The biggest issue in taking dramatic license is the use of fictional characters. Weir, for her part, wants to use her fiction to fill in gaps in the historical record and gain “insights that would not be permissible to a historian, and yet can have a legitimate value of their own.” As a result, she prefers to use real individuals as her main characters. “While I was researching my biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” she explained, “it occurred to me that I wanted to write a novel about Eleanor, in which I could develop ideas and themes that had no place in a history book, but which—based on sound research and educated guesses—could help to illuminate her life and explain her motives and actions.”

Martin agrees that historical fiction “fills in the spaces.” He disagrees, though, on the use of fictional characters. “Fictional characters have a freedom of movement in the story that gives you a freedom of movement.” If an author does not use fictional characters in a novel, then they might as well be writing history. “The fictional characters give me the plot,” he said. “That is what makes fiction, what happens to characters who move through history.”

At the same time, this fictionalizing of a real person’s life must be grounded in reality. “It is liberating to be able to use one’s imagination, but you can't simply indulge in flights of fancy,” Weir explained. “That sells short both those who know nothing of the subject, and those who know a great deal. I know—because my readers regularly, and forcefully, tell me so—that people care that the historical fiction they read is close to the truth.”

With these considerations in mind, an author still needs to do research to tell your story and get it right. “The research is the necessary spadework. Even when I was working on my doctorate I was writing poetry, the occasional magazine article. I'm more of a magpie researcher than someone who wants to live in it all the time,” Doig explained.

The knowledge a historian has of the past can be a useful in tool writing historical fiction. “Yet much of the research required for a historical novel is, I discovered, very different from that done for a history book,” David observed. “For Zulu Hart I already knew a lot of solid factual information because I'd previously written a history of the Zulu War. What I didn't have was the sights and smells. What, for example, did the inside of the War Office look like in 1879? Or what was the experience of steam travel from England to South Africa at that time?”

Harkness agrees: “As a historian you can only go as far as the evidence will take you. I needed to be able to shed that, to let the history serve the story rather than have the history bind the story. You have to rewire your brain, in a way.” She, however, chose to use her knowledge of the past to examine how it affects the present. At the center of her story is Ashmole 782, a long lost medieval document that may or may not contain the secrets of eternal life. “It really exists,” she said. The document was one of many manuscripts that Elias Ashmole, a 17th century bibliophile, collected and cataloged. “It really is lost—I've looked for it; that's its real title. This is the perfect jumping-off point for a novel. I can either be frustrated as a historian or intrigued as a storyteller.”

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