I often get asked why I choose to write historical fiction and usually the question leaves me floundering. I think this is because it implies I had some sort of choice in the matter, whereas, to tell the truth, what I have is a series of post-rationalisations. It was what I wanted to write, so that was what I wrote. There was no study of the market place or check list of pros and cons between genres. I was reading a lot about 18th century history, largely inspired by the fresh light cast on the period by the work of Amanda Vickery, and I like reading books where Stuff Happens. Stuff always happens in crime novels and usually quite a lot of it, so I wrote Instruments of Darkness, a crime novel set in 1780.
So if you don’t really decide what you write, the question becomes ‘why do you write?’ I know the usual line is something about a need to communicate; an urge to create and share stories and in so doing stake a claim to some corner of a stranger’s mental landscape, but I don’t really buy that. If that was what writers wanted, wouldn’t we all want to be stand-up comedians? Writers need to be happy spending most of their time alone, and though these days we are all encouraged to do as many events as possible and stalk about the internet letting everyone know how clever we are, most writers I know would rather be off in their towers with their imaginary friends. In fact most writers I know regard the phone as an instrument of torture and have trained friends and family to only ever communicate by email, or text in an emergency.
You need to be driven to write, but driven by curiosity, I think, not by a need for fame and acclaim. Your subject, your story needs to be all absorbing for you. You need to be hungry for the research then obsessive about spending your time in the world you’re discovering.
We are told, too often, write what you know. I’ve always thought that advice about as good as ‘if you want to get an agent follow them to parties with the unbound pages of your latest manuscript’. It speaks to the stereotype of writer as show off who has a desperate need to share their story. A lot of us are shy bunnies and I have no great interest in sharing my story. I don’t think it’s that interesting. I write because I’m fascinated by other people’s stories, particularly those hidden by time and ironed out of history by the grand narratives of wars and rulers. Write what you want to know about, that’s what I say. If you do that you’ll write something interesting.
I did a talk with Liz Freemantle and Vanora Bennett this week and a question came up about the current interest in historical fiction. Liz made the very good point that it might be something to do with the fact that history itself is being written very differently these days. There’s an interest what everyone else was up to while the grand narratives rolled by in a haze of gunsmoke. Social historians, historians of folklore, the researchers going through the account books of the provincial music halls - those are the people feeding historical fiction now, and huzzah for that because I want to know the story of the artist who painted the glass in Westminster abbey, more than that of the king crowned underneath them, I want to know why devil dogs lope along the lanes of Britain, I want to know what it was to huddle in the galleries, eating fish and chips and joining in with the chorus of the comic songs, or what it was to step out onto the stage and sing them. I want to write these stories, because they are what I want to read and they are there, hiding in slim academic volumes or just out of view in the archives, the court records and account books, in the glass and under the stones lying along the old paths. You just have to want to go and find them.