Sunday, 13 December 2015

Why Do We Write (Historical) Fiction?

The plot is already there, mapped out. There's a ready-made, well-established timeline. The main characters are there, and so, too, are all your minor characters; you don't even have to make up any names. So, is Historical Fiction the easy option? 
It would seem so, wouldn't it, from what I've just said? The difficulty is deciding what is history, and what is a story. If you are telling the life story of one particular person, where do you start? Where do you stop? How much do you bend the facts to fit your story? 
Inevitably there will be gaps in the history which the fiction writer will be at liberty to fill, but you can't just go making things up. You might also have some genuine, incontestable facts which readers just won't believe and will think you made them up anyway. And sometimes the real history just won't fit with the story you are trying to tell. Aaarrgghh! So why do we do it? I asked a few authors to tell me ~

Margaret Skea:"I enjoy the challenge of trying to transport myself and readers to a different time and place. Writing about events set in the past but which mirror modern issues allows me to tackle those issues in a way that is less emotionally draining. And as I’ve always loved historic houses and antiques it gives me the perfect excuse to visit lots of them!" Find Margaret HERE

Tom Williams: "I came across James Brooke on a trip to Borneo and he fascinated me. Later, I wanted to write a contemporary fiction about a good man who gains power and does terrible things. I realised I could use some events from Brooke's life rather than invent a character. Hence The White Rajah." (Find Tom HERE) 
So, it would seem that the attraction, along with wishing to take readers to a place in the past, is also that of not having to invent a character, but using a real one. But is it all pros and no cons? I am currently battling with the second draft of a fiction which is not historical and the timeline has to be a complete invention. It's testing my powers of imagination, I must admit! I'm having to think of appropriate names for characters, and decide how old they are. I can't rely on anything other than my own creativity for my story arc. But it's still a thrilling process and I am enjoying the writing just as much as I did when writing my historical novels and the characters are as real to me as figures from history.
Anna Belfrage: "I write so as to step into a bubble of my own creation, allowing me to drift freely over time and place. I write so as to further penetrate the complexity of human existence, all the way from birth to death – and sometimes even beyond the boundaries of physical existence. I write to give voice to the characters that start out like whispers in the foggy recesses in my mind, but swell into a symphony of thoughts and emotions, as real, at times, to me as are the people in my life. I write because I must, an obsessive love, an affliction. I write to be – and to share all of the above with others. (Find Anna HERE
My answer to the question is pretty straightforward. Even as a small child I loved history, but I was not a great reader, so all the fiction I read was historical; it was the only subject which interested me. When I got a bit older, I realised I wanted to write, and, more specifically, I wanted to give the same treatment to my favourite characters from history. Then I grew up properly and realised it wasn't quite as easy as just daydreaming - it takes, in some cases, years of research, and entails learning how to craft a novel. (See HERE for an insight into the challenges of research, courtesy of Holly Stacey.) But fundamentally, my aim is still the same. To marry my two loves, history and writing, and to bring characters from the past back to life. 
Perhaps the last word should go to Debbie Brown: "I love the creative feeling. I love editing until the words sound perfect. I want people to meet my imaginary friends." (Find Debbie HERE)
For an in-depth analysis of the art of writing Historical fiction, please visit Mary Tod's blog and read her interview with Johanna Skibsrud HERE
Also, for an excellent piece on how facts make historical fiction believable, visit Stephanie Hopkins' blog, Layered Pages, to read what Valerie Biel has to say HERE
There is a wonderful, almost mirror image, piece HERE, where historian Ian Mortimer talks about why historians should write fiction. Please do visit to see what he said.
And please do read my interviews with other Historical Fiction writers HERE
I'd love to know why you write, or read, historical fiction - please leave a comment below.


  1. Fab collection of books and authors. Interesting reading about them here, thanks so much Annie, for hosting them. Good luck everyone. :)

  2. Thanks Jane, glad you enjoyed it :)

  3. Thanks for mentioning my blog post on "Layered Pages." I love researching nearly as much as writing, but putting the two together, makes my day. Thanks for all the other great links here, too.

  4. Thanks Valerie - as soon as I read your piece I knew I had to ask Stephanie if I could include it here; it was so relevant and such a great post :)

  5. Very interesting article Annie, and I will check out your links, especially the "Layered Pages". Personally I could get lost in the research, I just love it. I listened to most of your interview from 2010, I liked what you said, " being able to choose the history that you learned was empowering". I am experiencing that too! P.S. I love your accent.

  6. Thank you Linda - I think my accent has changed since living up north - I don't remember sounding like that when I was younger! I couldn't get over how young I sounded - but it was a few years ago, 2010 if I recall correctly. Glad you enjoyed the article and yes, do check out the other blogs - there's so much of interest in them :)