Authenticity in historical fiction (I)

This is my first blog post for 2017, and my current plan is to post about twice a month, mostly about my thoughts on writing historical fiction, and my own “writing journey”.

In my post on November 2nd (The problem with historical fiction (I)), I looked briefly at the concept of “authenticity”, one of the so-called problems of historical fiction. In this and the next four posts, I am going to discuss this matter of authenticity a little further.

imagesI don’t think that anything I am going to say is new or surprising. But my thoughts form part of my own “writing journey’ – the processes that I have been engaged in as I have been, and am still, learning how to write an historical novel. I felt my thoughts might just be worth sharing – with readers who would like to know how I got here, and with other historical novelists who might possibly be grappling with much the same “processes”…

You will know, I am sure, that I have recently published my historical novel, Fortune’s Wheel, set in the fourteenth century. It is my first publication. However, you may not know that I have also written a second historical novel, as yet unpublished, The Nature of Things, which is also set in the fourteenth century, and which I wrote for my PhD. I am currently writing the first of at least two, and maybe three or more, sequels to Fortune’s Wheel.

These are all “historical novels”, and they are all, or will be, the same kind of historical novel. And what is that? Because there are many kinds of historical fiction. What my novels are not are: medieval mystery, crime, romance or adventure (although mystery, crime, romance and adventure all do occur); they are not alternative history or alternative biography; nor fantasy, nor time-slip. I enjoy reading all of these types (well, nearly all), but my novels are in truth not much like any of these sub-genres of historical fiction, although they do of course share similarities with many individual historical novels.

What has this got to with my topic of “authenticity”? Bear with me, because it is relevant, even if I might take another paragraph or two to get there…

It was what drove me to write my novels in the first place that determined what kind of historical novels they would be. For, they are essentially about people rather than events: the characters (almost entirely fictional characters, in fictional settings) are the novel’s main driver rather than the plot. They are, perhaps, “relationship” novels, but set in the fourteenth century.

unnamedMaybe they are vaguely akin to the “social realism” novels of the nineteenth century (although of course many of those novels were not really historical at all, because their pasts were hardly much removed from their authors’ own times), but really only in the sense that my novels’ plots are based on social history – not high-level politics, or wars, or the antics of royals and the nobility, but more the “everyday lives of country folk”. And, in the fourteenth century (if indeed ever), everyday life for the average peasant was not exactly a bed of roses.

But wouldn’t it, I thought, when I first embarked upon this particular writing journey, be fascinating to find out more about what it was really like then and try to bring it to life?

 

In writing my novels, my greatest pleasure is the challenge of trying to recreate a past world for readers to immerse themselves in. My aim is to make the world I create feel natural, for it to accord readily with readers’ expectations of what life of the period might have actually been like.

Some writers and critics of historical fiction have said, and will continue to say, I’m sure, that such an objective is a hopeless one, that it is impossible to portray the past with any real degree of authenticity. But I am determined to continue trying…

For a novel set in the fourteenth century to seem “natural”, it requires both authenticity and a degree of strangeness (“alterity”). Authenticity aims for an accurate representation of the artefacts, mindsets and behaviours according to what we know from records concerning what was used, thought and done in the fourteenth century. Alterity focuses on the otherness of the past, those aspects of life, in particular mindsets and behaviours, that are unfamiliar to the modern reader.

As I was writing Fortune’s Wheel, and The Nature of Things, I asked myself many times what was it that contributed to the seeming authenticity of an historical novel? I wanted to know how other writers had done it. I decided to explore… Simply continuing to research and write is part of that exploration. But I also spent bit of time looking, with a more or less critical eye, at other novels set in the broadly mediaeval period, to try to assess their sense of authenticity, to see how other authors have addressed the concerns I had.1

I will write about the results of my exploration into aspects of authenticity, and alterity, in future posts.

(Note: I have discussed this and other aspects of writing historical fiction in my PhD thesis, Authenticity and alterity: Evoking the fourteenth century in fiction, University of Southampton, Faculty of Humanities, 2015 <http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/383484/>)

References

1  The results of my critical review are documented in my PhD thesis.

3 thoughts on “Authenticity in historical fiction (I)

  1. JR Tomlin

    While trying not to be insulting, you still manage to be insulting by implying that the authenticity is not ‘natural’ to other people’s historical novels. I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but not the way to make friends with other historical authors.

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    1. Oh dear, I do apologise. I can see how you might infer that from my words, but you are quite right, I really had not intended to imply that at all. I will try to be more careful with how I express my thoughts in future – the last thing I want is to upset fellow authors.

      Like

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