Writers and readers both find it easy to visit the past. A few words, a little stir of the imagination, and we’re on a street in 17th century London as if we’d just stepped in a time machine. But while readers observe what’s around them as discreetly as visitors to a museum, writers are a bunch of vandals who barge joyously into the midst of it and create characters of our own to interfere with the outcome. The past to us is a field of freshly fallen snow, and we can’t resist leaving our dirty footprints all over it.
|Go on.... You know you want to.
All harmless fun, of course, but I remember the film ‘Back to the Future’, where the hero’s visit to the past jeopardises his own future by inadvertently messing up the first meeting between his parents.
That’s a sci-fi fantasy, but the principle of a fragile time continuum applies to historical fiction too. Unless we’re writing ‘Alternative History’ we can’t whizz into Tudor England, kill Henry VIII at age 10, throw the subsequent six hundred years of history into chaos, then calmly stroll off whistling.
Hilary Mantel's ‘Wolf Hall’ gives us wonderful fictional insight into Thomas Cromwell’s mind, but as long as his body does what the record says it did, then history rolls on its way undisturbed.
A safer option is to keep our characters beneath the historical radar altogether – a romance between a Greek slave and a Roman soldier won’t make so much as a ripple in the tide of time. But if (like me) you want your characters to have an impact and still remain fictional, then that’s a lot harder.
The second is arguably more elegant, and that’s simply to steal the actions of someone else. Most readers would raise an eyebrow if America were to be ‘discovered’ by Eric Smith rather than Christopher Columbus, but provided the subject is sufficiently obscure it’s possible to get away with it. Alexandre Dumas did it all the time, and it never bothered me when I was reading him. The same action happened, it was glorious and exciting, and the whole thing seemed more relevant and personal because it was performed by characters I knew rather than those I’d never heard of.
|Changing history in more ways than one
Somebody (no-one knows who) passed a copy of the conspirators’ secret treaty to Cardinal Richelieu – so in the novel it’s my fictional André de Roland. Somebody (no-one knows who) warned the Prince du Condé that the Spanish army had an ambush waiting in the woods at Rocroi – so here comes André again, panting heroically as he delivers his message. My character earns the title of ‘hero’ by making a difference, yet nothing in history is changed.
|The real Kavanagh at Lucknow
But the Unknown Hero has an equally valuable counterpart we neglect at our peril - the Unknown Villain. He’s just as pervasive throughout history, and in the Crimea I found he’d left footprints as big as a Russian Yeti’s.
|The very dodgy Comte de Soissons
Dumas knew that. Nobody created more havoc than he did, and when it comes to crashing through facts we’re not talking so much about a coach and four as a bloody London Bendy Bus - but he always knew how to come home when it was over. In ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’ he even gives Louis XIII a secret twin brother, but the story ends in such a way that we can still read the history books without needing to change a word.
That’s what I want. If someone who’s read my novels goes on to read a history book, I don’t want them to think I’ve told them a pack of lies. History and fiction can co-exist, and each can make the other more real. All we need to do is wipe away our footprints and remember to close the door when we leave.