Sarah Hawkswood, author of the Bradecote and Catchpoll series, on how being an academic historian influences her fiction.
I am an historian, and I am also a writer of historical fiction. Being the former influences how I write as the latter, imposes a ‘morality’, but I do not see it as constricting. I also do not think that factual and fiction should glare at each other across a divide, forming shield walls and beating their swords on those shields, yelling. We are all the children of the Muse of History, all on the same side. Does that sound overdramatic? Well, when I first stepped from writing military history into mediaeval murder mysteries I happened to meet a don from my former college (admittedly a geography don, not history), and when she asked what I was doing I told her I had a book out on World War I but was now writing historical fiction. She look genuinely horrified, as if I had just told her I was going ‘on the game’, and pleaded that I must ‘get back to proper writing’. I imagine that somewhere there are still those in academe who think that way, though a surprisingly large number of academics also write historical fiction these days, and are not ashamed in the least. At the other extreme might be those who see ‘history’ as merely the set dressing to their plot, something that is an additional extra rather than intrinsic to what they are writing. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I agree with neither extreme.
What I do believe is that today, even more than in the past, writers of historical fiction need to be aware of their power, and not misuse it. History in education is squeezed by being one among many subjects, and for all those inspired when at school there are as many who declare history is awful. Yet history is ever more popular, even populist. It comes in neat, hour long bites on BBC4, in authentically grimy (if nothing else) television series, and it comes in the varied forms of historical fiction. I think many people today do not pick up a factual history book out of simple curiosity, but because something has prodded them into interest, stirred them. I myself ‘discovered’ military history at the precocious age of ten, when I went to the cinema for the first time and saw Waterloo, (which dates me), and the year after that I saw the re-release of Zulu. On the big screen they were amazing spectacles, and I went away fascinated by how much was ‘just a film’, like a western, and how much was true. The rest is (military) history.
We who already love history may enjoy a ramble through primary sources, and new interpretations of the facts, but most people do not, so is it not better there is, however awful the term, ‘history-lite’ rather than no history at all, assuming it is not inaccurate? Has not fiction a role to play? I think it does, but it also means the historical novelist has a duty of care. Even though readers and viewers know the fictional series they enjoy is fiction, like it or not, it influences their perceptions of the past – what may be termed the ‘Dan Brown effect’. They may say ‘Oh, I know it was just a story but . . .’ , and the ‘but’ is important. Whether intended by the writer or not, a book can morph a view of history, and if enough people’s view is morphed the same way then history is actually distorted. If I may cross to the visual medium – back to Zulu – for an example, I am actually well aware that Lt Gonville Bromhead VC was a bewhiskered and hard of hearing subaltern in the 24th Ft, but say the name, and in my head pops up an image of Michael Caine. I will lay odds that is true for the vast majority who recognise the name at all, so Lt Bromhead has ‘become’ fair and clean shaven.
‘It is the victors who write the history’ is still true, but surely it is as much the screenwriters and novelists who form opinions of past events and characters? It has always been so to an extent, since who thinks of King Macbeth without ‘till Birnum wood be come to Dunsinane’ and all the Shakespeare. Look at how Shakespeare’s plays have formed perceptions of King Macbeth and King Richard III. That usurpation of fact by invention is still a risk. I think it means that writers of historical fiction need to bear in mind the power they wield. Yes, the prime aim is to entertain, to write a great tale, a story that the reader cannot put down, but to do it at the price of history is, to me, dangerous, and wrong. I think the majority of historical writers engage in research, not least because in the ‘Age of Google’ there will be plenty of people keen to spot the anachronism or factual error. In a sense, that is the no-brainer. What is more open to interpretation is how far one bends facts, ascribes actions to people who actually existed.
There are times when history is a boon to the fiction writer, in inspiration, or giving a really handy fact upon which to take a story in a certain direction. It can also be a pain in the rear end, when history gets in the way of the plot. There are three options available in such circumstances; ride roughshod over the history for the sake of the story and say ‘but this is entertainment, so what’; change the history but hold up one’s hand in an author’s note at the end (kudos to those that do so); adapt the plot to keep it historically accurate. The last is sometimes impossible, but occasionally improves on the original plan. It is up to each individual, but if one takes the first course, what is happening to history, bit by bit? Is one in effect creating ‘alternative facts’? The reading public will absorb what you write, and it will attain a ‘reality’.
My historian’s soul will not let me do that to the historical record. My own ethos is that where history exists, I keep to it as closely as possible. Since I am writing about an undersheriff and sheriff’s serjeant solving murders in the mid 12thC I am in difficult territory for a start, since ‘detecting’ had little to do with either office. However, I have held my hand up to that, and stress it is a fictional conceit. Of course if one stuck totally to accurate history the mediaeval murder mystery would be thin. As today, most murders did not take a lot of solving, being the work of nearest and supposedly dearest, or of rivals. The majority of murders that were complex were probably never solved, and a ‘case’ would become a ‘cold case’ within a week in a world without even a witness statement on paper, let alone all that has come to the detective’s fingertips since the finger print itself.
I seek to create a world, a world that feels mediaeval to the reader, that will involve them, and may indeed covertly educate and inform a little, as well as primarily entertain. It may just be the spark that gets a few reading the factual background and lights the flame of interest in history in them that has lain dormant, as Waterloo and Zulu did for me. If there are details, I want them to be accurate ones. If a monastery was founded only a few years previously, it will still ‘have the builders in’; if the name of an abbot is known for that date, I will use his name; if there had been a fire in a town, it will show. I am fortunate in that the majority of my characters are purely my own invention, and I can do with them as I please, but if I have a real name I give them a physical appearance and character that is of my own devising, and helpful to the plotting. Often the name is all that remains in the historical record so it is fair to do so. If the character is too unpleasant I am happy to remind the reader that only the name is real. I will not ascribe a real crime to a real historical name (unless they were found guilty of it at the time).
How much more complicated it must be for the writer dealing with later history, where there is a plethora of detail about character and appearance, and even opposing reports as to the events in which they were involved. Where does one draw the line? Clearly, where people did meet but no record remains of what was said, invention is required, but how far can the writer create the motivation in the character? I make no judgement but ask the question. There is also this. If a writer were to pen a brilliant work of fiction, holding closely to the historical record and yet slipping in one thing they knew to be totally untrue, they would risk being ‘found out’, but the majority of readers would assimilate that falsehood, taking it in with the tenor of accuracy.
I know how I regard the issue of historicity, but I most certainly cannot judge everyone else. I put my view in order to promote a discussion which I think important. What are the problems that others have encountered? How have they dealt with finding the balance that suits them? Have factual writers made conscious efforts not to let their own subjectivity get in the way of the book they are writing, since as human beings we all have that within us? Do we, factual history writers and historical fiction writers, feel we are on the same side? The floor is open, so do take it.
Sarah Hawkswood read Modern History at Oxford and her factual book on the Royal Marines in the First World War, From Trench and Turret, was published in 2006. The latest in her Bradecote and Catchpoll series, Ordeal by Fire, is out on 23rd March 2017.