The Harrogate History Festival is coming up in October and I’m going along to see if I can grab a selfie with Neil Oliver and Melvyn Bragg. Ideally both at once.
I’m also chairing an event about historical crime fiction ‘Cloaks, Daggers and Masked Maurauders’ with Robert Goddard, Michael Jecks, Shona MacLean and Andrew Taylor. I do hope that some of you can some along to the festival. There are some fantastic people appearing and you can guarantee the bar will be full of friendly writers between talks.
So my panel is made up of superb writers who are all critical and commercial success stories - a testament to the success of the (sub)genre. And if you needed any more convincing that historical crime is still drawing the crowds, no less than half of the shortlisted authors for the HWA Debut Crown are writing crime. Antonia Hodgson, MJ Carter and Ben Furgusson in fact. So why is it in such rude health?
The genre makes sense to me as a reader and as a writer. Crime fiction has the virtue of some clear genre rules, a contract with the reader. There will be a crime. You will find out the who, where, what, how and why of that crime before the book is finished, and you will be able to follow the investigation of that crime. The Detection Club have a fuller and funnier set of rules you can read here - but you get that idea.
Crime, especially murder stories, means high stakes, a strong, clear narrative drive and characters under pressure. That always sounds like a good read to me. And why does it works so well in a historical context? Well, it it seems to me the great virtue of the crime novel is that a detective is given (or claims) the right to ask questions and ask them of unusual people in unusual places. That detective is then the avatar for writer and reader, looking at how things work with an outsider’s eye and that perspective can be a great help when writing historical fiction.
Outsiders see what insiders do not - I’m sure that’s was why when I was writing The Paris Winter I found the memoirs of foreigners living in the city much more useful than those of the French. Detective fiction is a licence to uncover, to snoop, to examine and to speculate and I think historical fiction is driven by a similar sense of curiosity - a fascination with the small details that imply larger stories.
But perhaps something entirely different will come across in the discussion in Harrogate. I’ll be asking the writers about how they mix fact and fiction in their work, what draws them to certain subjects, individuals and periods, why they are attracted to crime fiction, and the difference between characters in a standalone novel and those that carry a series, but I’d love to know what readers of the History Girls would like to ask them. So what do you think? Questions for the individual writer or the whole group, please and I shall take them with me.