Tuesday 19 August 2014
Writing historical fiction by Christina Koning
‘I don’t like historical fiction,’ a friend said recently and, until a few years ago, I might well have agreed with him. I mean – what’s the point of setting your story in the past, when there’s so much about the present that’s worth describing? Of having to go to all the trouble of recreating a given period, with its customs and its habits of thought so very different from our own; its clothes and culinary preferences so alien; its language so unfamiliar, when there’s such richness to be found in ‘the way we live now’? Isn’t it rather a cop-out, to be writing about events long dead and buried, when you could be grappling with the stuff of the twenty-first century?
Having tried my hand at writing both ‘historical’ and ‘contemporary’ fiction, I have to say that I no longer see a real distinction. It’s a question of focus, that’s all. When I wrote my first novel, A Mild Suicide, I was describing events that had taken place fifteen years before, in the late 1970s – excavating, as so many début novelists do, my own history. My second book, Undiscovered Country, went even further back into the past – to the 1950s. In its depiction of the manners, clothes and cocktail parties of the era it set out, quite deliberately, to create another world – as different as possible from the one in which it was written. I’m not sure if that made it a ‘historical novel’ or not, but it was certainly a novel in which history played an important part.
Fabulous Time, my third novel, had – as the title suggests – a somewhat tricksy relationship with the past. Moving between Sussex in 1967 and Shanghai in 1911, it played around with the (fashionably 1960s) idea that time is an illusion. The ways in which time can be relived, or made to stand still – through drugs, delirium, or the action of memory – were central to the story. And of course time, in novels, is always an illusion: a construct, by the author, with events lasting years or millennia compressed so that they seem to take almost no time at all, and events lasting a single day – or a single moment – extended to fill an entire novel.
Which brings me to my first ‘straight’ historical novel, The Dark Tower. When I started writing it, more than four years ago, I didn’t think it was going to be any different from my other books. I still don’t see it as different – in the sense of ‘belonging to another genre’. It’s certainly true that it’s set in a more remote bit of the past than I’d previously dealt with (the 1880s) but its concerns remain those of my earlier work. Love, death, loss, betrayal, and the ways that people try and deal with the circumstances that life throws at them.
With my most recent novel, Variable Stars, I’ve retreated (if that’s the word) still further into the past. After the nineteenth century setting of The Dark Tower, the eighteenth century was an obvious choice, perhaps. Except that it wasn’t like that. What drew me to write this story of all-consuming obsession and unrequited love wasn’t, initially, the historical period (the 1780s) in which the events described took place, but the subject – astronomy – and the wonderful cast of eccentrics and enthusiasts of which the world of science at that time consisted.
Although of course, in writing Variable Stars, I did become as fascinated by the period as by the people. Because the more I learned about that astonishing time we call The Age of Enlightenment, the more I wanted to know. Suddenly, fragments – a line from a poem by Alexander Pope; a walk along a Spitalfields street; Romney’s portrait of Sarah Siddons – coalesced into a whole, and I started to get a picture of the world my characters inhabited.
That’s one of the delights of writing about the past. You start investigating one thing, and before you know it, you’ve turned up something else. Anecdotes. Scraps of conversation. Letters. Diary entries. The distance between ‘then’ and ‘now’ is abolished, and you start to see history, not as discrete and irreconcilable units of time, but as a continuum, of which you yourself are a part.
So if I now feel my friend was wrong to be so dismissive about historical fiction, it’s because I don’t see why it has to be separated from any other kind. After all, some of the best novels of recent years – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Helen Dunmore’s The Siege, Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong – have dealt with large historical subjects, without ever losing their focus on individual lives. And to the taunt – ‘why not write about the present?’ one can only reply that writing about the past is a way of doing just that – only with a bit more ‘distance’ to sharpen one’s perspective.