Author Chris Bishop discusses why writers of historical fiction don’t always adhere solely to the ‘facts’ – and why they sometimes shouldn’t.
As a writer of historical fiction, I am frequently asked whether my work is based solely on fact. My stock answer is that I am a writer not a historian and, as such, my job is not to regale readers with my knowledge of dates and events, etc, but simply to weave a tale between them. To that end, I believe that writers of historical fiction have an important role to play in arousing and retaining public interest in our past by bringing key events to life. They should therefore not be afraid to explore and even challenge creatively the many facets of history which remain open to interpretation.
The term historical fiction can encompass a very broad spectrum of work but, by definition, should include a combination of both elements – history and fiction. From a purely personal perspective, I am very happy to read a story set in the past and, provided I know it’s pure fiction, accept it as such. Similarly, I love to read historically accurate accounts written by eminent historians. I readily admit that my own work (which is primarily set in Anglo-Saxon England) lies somewhere between these somewhat polarised ideals – fiction based on fact, the so-called ‘faction’.
Some authors use a historical setting as a backdrop to provide context and setting, whilst others like to allow the historical events to feature more strongly. The problems arise when fiction masquerades as fact or where a writer has unwittingly erred from the straight and narrow. For my part, I like to make it clear that, whilst broadly based on ‘fact’, my novels also contain fictitious characters and events – other authors go further and even list the liberties they’ve taken, though personally I think that’s unnecessary and can sometimes seem to undermine an otherwise excellent story. Ultimately, it’s the reader’s prerogative to determine what is acceptable.
Combining my passion for the Anglo-Saxons with my lifelong interest in creative writing compels me to inform as well as entertain in equal measure. Therefore my work, whilst carefully researched, tends to reflect an accumulation of both fact and fiction, with a helping of conjecture and imagination on the side. To achieve this blend, I gather and collate as much information as I can.
I admit that I don’t go back to the archival evidence or original documentation and so accept that to some extent I am relying on the interpretations and translations of others, but I do read as widely as I can and visit the relevant locations – even though the landscape and geographical features may have changed a great deal with the passage of time. I am also a fan of re-enactment groups who, because of their passion and their attention to detail, are a great source of practical information about what people actually wore, how they used their weapons and such like; the day to day ‘stuff’ that provides the colourful detail which I believe many readers enjoy.
I contend that this level of research is acceptable for a writer, particularly where I’m depicting events which took place so long ago and stem from an era from which we have relatively few facts and only limited archaeological evidence. This means that, of necessity, I have to interpret events as best I can by sifting through the sometimes conflicting information and misinformation with only a few contemporary accounts to rely on and even fewer which can be regarded as unbiased. After all, history is written by the victor not the vanquished and fake news and propaganda are nothing new.
Sorting through all this raises a number of issues. Take for example the stories which have grown up around certain historical characters – did Alfred the Great really burn the cakes and why should it matter if he did? Did he really disguise himself as a wandering minstrel so he could enter the Viking camp as a spy?
So much of what we think we know about history is legend or folklore but has become so ingrained in our collective memory that it has almost become fact. I like to think of these stories as remnants of our tradition of oral rather than written storytelling, which provide essential clues about the nature of the person concerned (Alfred’s humility and his ingenuity and bravado in the two cases I’ve cited above). As such it would be contentious to ignore these stories, though they may well not be true.
There is also the problem of what has simply been recorded in error by, for example, a weary monk at the end of long boring day copying from documents he has read a hundred times before and knows by heart! Whilst that adds a certain piquancy to the brew it could also prove misleading.
Apart from all this there are gaps in our knowledge of events which any author will have no option but to fill in order for his or her story to make any sense at all.
Take for example the following, which relates to events in the story of Alfred the Great, starting from the premise with which I think most historians would agree – that in 878 Alfred was attacked whilst sheltering at his Royal Vill at Chippenham for the winter. This is not indisputable but, as I say, I think it is a generally accepted sequence of events. The attack is reckoned to have taken place on the 10th day after Christmas (again, not irrefutable) and, with his army all but annihilated, he is said to have fled to hide in the desolate marshes at Athelney (below), though accounts vary as to exactly where he went and how many men went with him.
So, a few facts, and any discrepancies, although potentially significant to an historian, don’t really alter the basic concept of the story. But to a writer of historical fiction these discrepancies are like manna from heaven. To illustrate this, let me pose the question about why Alfred was taken by surprise by the Vikings. Surely, after years of war and knowing they had turned their eyes towards Wessex to complete their domination of England, he must have expected an attack sooner or later?
I think we can legitimately ask this, given that he, as an accomplished military commander, would surely have posted guards and appointed spies to keep him and his household safe. OK, he may have been simply overwhelmed by sheer numbers or fallen victim to a lightning raid (although I find the latter hard to believe given that the Vikings apparently launched their attack from Gloucester!) but surely he would not have been taken completely by surprise.
One possible explanation is that there was a traitor in his camp, someone who not only told the Vikings where and when to strike but perhaps also facilitated the attack by opening the gates or distracting the guards – a tempting and not unreasonable proposition for any writer and one I felt able to exploit in my first novel, Blood and Destiny. However, in doing so I have created not just something for which I have no specific evidence but also a character who may well be entirely fictitious as well.
I think this illustrates that there are gaps in our knowledge which need to be filled. The problem these gaps create is further exacerbated by the fact that our view of history is ever changing and evolving as new information emerges from archaeological excavation, findings and research. For example, a chance find of some breathtakingly stunning artefacts near Lichfield in 2009 (the Staffordshire Hoard) completely changed many people’s perspective of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’.
Similarly, there is now a contention (supported by some archaeological evidence) that Alfred may not have stood alone at the all-important battle at Edington but enlisted (or perhaps accepted) help from Ceolwulf II, the ruler of Mercia. Coins struck soon after the event support this contention by showing both Alfred and Ceolwulf seated side by side under the winged figure of victory – or is it possibly an angel, which might suggest a different connotation altogether? This depiction could be taken to suggest the two kingdoms coming together to fight a common enemy and therefore sharing the glory, or might equally represent an alliance between the two realms once victory had been achieved.
We also have to accept that intervening generations may have distorted the facts for their own ends, both political and cultural.
As a writer, I am (like many historians) particularly interested not just in what might be called ‘the grand events’, all of which have been analysed and debated by people better qualified than I am, but in how people must have felt at the time, what they must have been thinking and how they reacted to the changes their lives underwent as a result. This requires me to read between the lines – not so much for the established characters of whom we have at least some background or biographical knowledge, but for those I, as a writer, need to invent or those I place out of context in order to make my tale as vivid as possible. Fictitious or otherwise, those characters are intended to represent all those who history has forgotten or ignored but who play an essential role in any story, regardless of time and place. That, I believe, is what good historical fiction is all about – putting some meat on the bones rather than analysing the skeleton itself.
Once I’ve completed all my research, the dilemma is not so much what to include as to what should be left out. Too much information can disrupt an otherwise compelling plot whilst detail can help to paint the picture which is needed to create an authentic ‘feel’ for the period. This somewhat arbitrary pruning could be regarded as being as much of a distortion as is the creation of fictitious characters or events.
From all I’ve said you may think that I’m arguing for the right to take a somewhat cavalier approach to facts but that is not the case. I am happy to exploit the gaps between them as a way of bringing to life what might otherwise be a disjointed and incomplete narrative and, to that end, feel justified in an occasional twist of the tale. In my view you should allow the writer of historical fiction that degree of latitude, so long as it stays within the bounds of realism and doesn’t stray too far towards the realms of fantasy – an equally valid but significantly different genre altogether.
In conclusion, I feel that writers of historical fiction should be free to think creatively – not to manipulate the facts, but to expand and develop them, perhaps by even exploring alternative scenarios. They, like historians, have their part to play in helping to arouse and retain the public’s interest in our past which I think is the most important point of all. As Matthew, my narrator in Blood and Destiny says: “Your past is as much a part of you as is the blood which courses through your veins.”
Chris Bishop is the author of a trilogy entitled The Shadow of the Raven which is published by Red Door Books. Book one, Blood and Destiny, and book two, The Warrior with the Pierced Heart, are both available now in paperback and ebook. Book three, The Final Reckoning, will be published in Spring 2019.
Read more about the history of Mercia