|Newbury clock tower in the middle of the last century, from the Francis Frith Collection|
I was outraged! I thought I'd learnt something. I thought he'd done research. I knew his characters were fictional, but I'd supposed their actions to be based in historical fact. At that time, I had just started to write my first novel with a historical setting, and the incident taught me a valuable lesson. I wanted readers to come away from one of my books entertained and moved, but also able to feel that they'd learned something. And if they'd learned something about a piece of history that was completely new to them, then so much the better. I think there has to be a bond of trust between historical fiction author and reader - trust that, however extraordinary the story, the author has done enough research to bring their story alive, and to portray society, place, manners and politics of that era as faithfully as possible.
Because if you can just 'make it all up', what's the point? You might as well write a fantasy novel (though this might be the trained historian in me speaking!). And it's often easy to spot when an author hasn't done enough research into their era, and can't furnish the story with real detail. But here's a big but: what if the demands of your story go beyond the established facts? In The English Girl, which is set during the Jebel War of 1958-59 in Oman, I needed a certain set of characters to meet. But, realistically, I knew from my research that they probably never would have. So, I tweaked history. I had officers of the SAS, newly deployed in the battle, find the time to have dinner at the British Residence in Muscat, so that my characters could get involved with each other. In The Night Falling, I wrote one of my fictional characters into a real life massacre of starving Italian farm workers by fascists landowners - though I was careful to give the names of those who really did die at the back of the book. In both cases, I stuck to the true course of events as closely as I could in all other respects.
|Now framed and on my wall, the photo of a Puglian peasant wedding from 1920, found in a Devizes junk shop, that initially inspired The Night Falling.|
I'm similarly nervous about using real-life characters in my novels. With a very few exceptions - the Sultan of Oman, for example - everybody with a speaking part in one of my novels is fictional. I don't even like the term 'based upon', because it still implies some filching of a famous person's actual life, career or personality - putting words into their mouths and deeds into their lives that they never in fact spoke or did, though there are a great many authors who are quite happy to do this, and make it work very well. I tend to go with the term 'inspired by'. To give a couple of examples, my character Maude Vickery, intrepid Victorian female explorer in The English Girl, was inspired by Gertrude Bell (as I talked about in an earlier blog). In A Half Forgotten Song, the character of Charles Aubrey was inspired by the charismatic, Welsh, post-impressionist artist, Augustus John.
|Augustus John, photographed in 1914. Brooding charisma present and correct.|
In both cases, I took themes from these characters' lives - what it was that made them extraordinary - and used that as the starting point for a character of my own - one who embodied what had fired my imagination about the original, but one in whom I could invest the personality, motivations, and titillations I needed for my story. I once heard Phillip Pulman say that writers are like magpies, and I think this is particularly true for historical writers. We can roam all of history, picking out the bright, exciting parts that catch our eye, and gathering them together. With Augustus John, for example, it was his beautiful drawings of women that caught my eye - I'd known them for years, having worked in a printing factory in my summer holidays from college, where we printed a book of his work. Like a magpie, I swooped in on the idea of a man of huge talent and irresistible magnetism, who loved women and saw no reason to limit himself to his wife, mistress or mistress's sister... But I had no wish to write a biography of the man. I wanted to take a man like him, and put him into extraordinary events of my own creation.
|Augustus John's 1924 portrait of Alice Appleton Hay|
But it's a tricky business. Obviously, no serious author of historical fiction would include glaring anachronisms, or deliberately set out to rewrite history to better suit their plot. But at some point, unless you are writing a serious, factual tome, this rewriting of history is bound to take place. So perhaps that is the bond of trust between reader and writer - that the author will only tweak in small ways - and in plausible ways - in a wider setting of historical accuracy; and that the reader will forgive them for it, and enjoy the story as much as the history!