by Linda Buckley-Archer
I am not a historian. I am a writer of fictional narratives who attempts, among other things, to evoke the past for a young audience. Like many children’s novelists I started by writing for my own children. I wanted to share the excitement I felt when, as a child myself, I encountered the world of Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth or Dumas’s The Three Musketeers for the first time. There was that time-tourist feeling of visiting different historical periods on a kind of fictional grand tour. I recall being fascinated by the then-and-now aspect of these books and, above all, being surprised that I was able to relate to these people from the past who seemed to think and feel just like me.
I was inspired to write my first novel while listening to the historian Lucy Moore talking about eighteenth-century criminals and their vernacular. She spoke of the dangers of Covent Garden, of highwaymen, footpads, anglers and straw men. A ‘prancer’ was a horse, ‘velvet’ a tongue, murderers were ‘scragged’ at Tyburn, and so on. I started to research the period and read about a case of ‘half hanging’ (surviving the noose) in the Newgate Calendars. I remember thinking that my son would love all of this: the darker side of eighteenth century London in all its ramshackle glory.
So writing about history did not used to concern me in the same way that, say, characterisation or pace or narrative voice did. Now, increasingly, it does. Long gone are the days when ‘history’ was taught as an ideologically neutral set of dates and facts which could be learned by rote. History tends now to be viewed as fragmentary and selective; it is concerned with viewpoint and weaving its own narratives. And this means that an accurate depiction of ‘history’ becomes challenging – if it is possible at all. Nevertheless, the writer of historical fiction is obliged to create a credible, coherent and vivid idea of the past. Fiction sometimes has to go where history fears to tread.
Then there are questions related to the responsibility of children’s / YA authors to their readership. For example, even though writing a novel with the primary intention of educating its readers lacks appeal on many levels, the notion of a historical novel which does not care if it misinforms is worse. On the one hand writers are not teachers, on the other, irrespective of the author’s motivation and expertise, children’s historical fiction contributes to the idea of history. If I have a mental picture of Roman Britain it has nothing to do with my assorted history teachers and everything to do with the imagination of Rosemary Sutcliff.
Historical fantasy fiction (in my own case the timeslip genre) provokes its own specific debates. There are those who prefer to take their historical fiction ‘straight’ and who may feel that there are too many pitfalls in writing time-slip, ‘alternative’ history and other species of historical fantasy to justify the attempt. What are the ramifications of using famous historical figures in one’s fiction, of having, for instance, a twenty-first century boy berate Dr Samuel Johnson for writing his dictionary and dooming him to the prospect of weekly spelling tests? It is ironic, however, that ‘playing with history’ can necessitate research that is just as - if not more - rigorous than ‘sticking to the facts’.
In next month’s post I am going to write in detail about my experience of writing counterfactual fiction, of asking the question: What If...? Of all the episodes in my time-travelling trilogy writing my counterfactual endeavour undoubtedly gave me the most pleasure. It was also, by far, the most difficult thing I have written. Appalled at learning that England had ‘lost’ America, my eighteenth-century villain, Lord Luxon, took it upon himself to find a way to sabotage the American War of Independence. Trying to identify, on my villain’s behalf, the potential turning points of America’s early history was a fascinating enterprise. The project engendered months of research. I visited New Jersey and was given invaluable advice by a Princeton historian. One thing I learned during the process was that imagining what didn’t happen certainly teaches you a lot about what did.
Thank you for visiting History Girls and over the next month I shall very much look forward to reading my fellow contributors’ posts and our readers’ comments.
My thanks to Mizan, my Indonesian publisher, for permission to use one of their lovely illustrations from Gideon the Cutpurse. Thanks also to David Lewis for permission to use his cartoon. www.davidlewiscartoons.com