Playing with History
On the historical writing spectrum, I fall into the more academic category for the majority of history readers, however, for my academic colleagues, I am a little too casual in my tone and I make use of novels, short stories and film.
So, I was rather intrigued to read Leslie Tate’s interview in two parts with Katherine Ashe who writes historical fiction. My perception is that to do it well, you have to know your history or use an incident to spark a story. William Boyd’s An ice cream war and CS Forrester’s The African Queen spring to mind as examples respectively – both dealing with World War 1 in Africa. I don’t believe you can stay plausible if you don’t. Maya Alexandri’s The Celebration Husband recognises this, whilst Hamilton Wende (The King’s Shilling) and Wilbur Smith (Shout at the devil and The Burning Shore) both go off on tangents in their accounts. Smith’s Assegai is better. The cleverness of the BBC2 series Cunk on Britain reinforces the importance of a solid grounding in historical knowledge – you can’t break the rules meaningfully if you do not know what they are; a point authors are very aware of in crafting their stories.
My fascination with the novel and how it could be used in non-fiction historical accounts stemmed from being asked to explain the social scene in South Africa for readers who were in the UK. Having read Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing a little while before being asked this question, it immediately sprung to mind as a means to doing so. When this was allowed to stand in my thesis, I had the necessary approval to continue using fictional accounts to try and explain non-fiction contexts. This in turn engendered a fascination of how it works for others, hence this reflection.
What struck me in Katherine’s first interview was the following:
- A return to the source material – she notes that historians were contradicting each other so she returned to the 13th century documents. New angles and ideas are always hiding in the original primary source material. We read things today differently to how they were read even five years ago, let alone twenty or a hundred.
- Simon de Montfort found Katherine – it does seem this way. We each have our own journeys to what we study and engage with, and as with Katherine, it can take a long time in coming to the fore. Thirty-five years of research and relationship building with the man before she felt able to write about him.
- The tangents one follows to discover new and confirm other information – in Katherine’s case, brushing up on her Latin and learning Old French. I too, have done similar things – studied French and read up on all sorts of seemingly unrelated topics (railways, Serbian barrels to name a couple). Language is an incredibly important part of writing – not just the language used for the writing, but the languages used by others to record their stories which form the basis of the research. Learning another language means engaging with the culture behind the language and that in itself brings a sensitivity to characters and events denied to those who only have access to one language. This was brought home by the third part of Michelle Payette-Daoust’s ‘lyrical essay’.
- How we explore alternatives because of the high prices institutions demand for use of images. This in itself opens up new ideas and avenues to explore.
From the second:
- Details are often surprising, and the most counter-intuitive are most persuasive. An historical novel with details that could be true for any period make me doubt the author’s depth of research. Anachronistic details are a danger and require breadth of research into the target period. This needs no further comment, it is so true.
- I look upon the first draft as my having created an equivalent of a block of marble. Editing is what sculpts it into a literary work. The corollary of this, in writing first draft, is don’t let yourself get hung up on the words. Leave a blank space for any word you can’t think of – just get the draft written. Again, a statement that can’t be bettered.
- I never leave off writing for the day without knowing what I’m going to be writing tomorrow. That’s my technique for avoiding writer’s block. And what good advice this is. I know if I sit down to write without having thought or primed myself to do so, I struggle. It’s almost as though you need to prepare the brain for what to focus on. And it works. Using one of my favourite analogies – the cow chewing the cud: give it the right food and it will produce quality milk.
- Many readers are devoted to the ‘truth’ of their favorite author and don’t understand that all writing of history, whether novelized or academic, is by its very nature speculation. This is so true for non-fiction writing too. It took me a while to realise this but doing so has been liberating. Using the documents and taking inspiration from what others say allows the material to create its own story or truth. Keep true to the documents and you can’t go wrong.
Writing history is an art in whatever form it takes. Patient research and developing empathy with and a sympathy for one’s characters is crucial to creating something others see as plausible, irrespective of the audience and form.