How To Write Historical Fiction

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Writing historical fiction with real-life characters at its core is a bit like negotiating a minefield that's already been swept. As long as you keep to the tried and tested path you'll be safe.

By that I mean that as long as you stick to the basic facts, the accepted road map which draws on events that are a matter of record. But if you stray - beware! If you're not blown to pieces by eagle-eyed critics, then there'll still be readers out there keen to take pot shots at you. 

Some of our greatest writers have ventured on this course. Think Shakespeare, Dickens and Tolstoy, not to mention Robert Graves, Colm Toibin and Pat Barker. Yet if combining fact and fiction is nothing new, it has always been viewed with suspicion by purists. Virginia Woolf, for example, deplored Lytton Strachey's original decision to garner the facts with invented passages in his book, Elizabeth and Essex. 'Truth of fact and truth of fiction are incompatible,' she told him.

Most historical novelists will tell you, however, that they have no desire to ride roughshod over the facts. Many are indeed respected scholars as well as writers of fiction. I am thinking of novelists like Alison Weir and Philippa Gregory who both go to original sources. In fact the latter struck literary gold when she took the trouble to delve into the archives herself. That is how she came across a tiny footnote in an original document stating that Henry VIII had to seek dispensation for his marriage to Anne Boleyn, not only to divorce his first wife Catherine of Aragon, but also because he had been sleeping with Anne's sister. This led Gregory to write her best seller The Other Boleyn Girl, which was subsequently made into a successful movie.

Kings and queens seem to be especially favoured by historical novelists, although several presidents and many artists, writers and actors have also had their names taken in vain for the sake of literature. As well as Hilary Mantel's hugely successful Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, there have been countless other novels that have at their heart real characters: Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang, Michael Cunningham's The Hours about Virginia Woolf and Joyce Carol Oates' Blonde about Marilyn Monroe to name but a few.

Yet all these writers would probably tell you that they are storytellers first and historians second. Take, for example, Bernard Cornwell, with 50 novels to his name. Most of them are historical, ranging from the early 19th century Sharpe series to his latest 1356, set at the time of the battle of Poitiers in the Middle Ages.

In a recent interview he said: "If you are wanting to write historical fiction I always say, you are not an historian. If you want to tell the world about the Henrician reformation, then write a history book but if you want an exciting story, then become a storyteller. Telling the story is the key."

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SOURCE: The Huffington Post
Tessa Harris
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