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Historical fiction - what's that all about?

Posted by Simon Parke, 01 February 2017, 6.12pm

I was recently asked some questions by a Historical Fiction website.

Here are my answers.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

The magic ingredient of historical fiction is the emotional truth of the time, the landscape of consciousness in the era described.

I wish not only to be in the same century as the characters and in the same room, but in their hearts and their minds.

All historical fiction writers do their research. (And some even prefer it to the writing!) But the best writers then throw a cloak of invisibility over their studies.

The research is there in the warp and weft of the narrative, but never made obvious, never clunkily on display, like a sixth former trying to impress teacher.

Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Shakespeare would often set his plays abroad, (Love’s Labour’s Lost, As you like it, Othello etc) in order to speak about England… like a child must leave home to see their parents better.

And in a similar manner, historical fiction heads for the past better to describe the present. If our present times are all we know, then we know very little.

So in my 17th century novel, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’ we discover parliament taking on the king, the embodiment of government. Where did sovereignty lie? Many would die before that question was answered.

While today, four centuries later, we have the Supreme Court having to adjudicate between parliament and the government again over the triggering of Article 50 – and declaring 11- 3 for the sovereignty of parliament. (No deaths so far, but much vitriol.)

But we’ve been here before…historical novels are delightfully full of both past and present. 

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel?

There are different landscapes to enjoy.

There’s the landscape of action: So Who did What and When? This is important, a chronological scaffold…people need to know where they are because this era may feel like a foreign land. I have a friend whose knowledge of history has been acquired entirely from historical fiction. (And the Asterix cartoon series.) She never listened at school, but she loves listening now.

Then there’s the landscape of setting: so what did a 17th century English kitchen look like; why did the astrologer William Lilly, a poor boy made good, have the best house in the Strand; how many courses were served up for the imprisoned king at his evening meal; who were the Ranters and the Levellers; what did a 17th century spy look like; how did the Post Office start and what did these people do with their time, without mobile phones?

And finally, the landscape of consciousness: what stirred the hearts of these people; why was England so crippled by distrust at this time; why did Cromwell’s wife support the king (awkward); what did Charles feel about his adultery with Jane Whorwood and how on earth did the nation come to the decision to kill their divinely appointed king – when five years previously - no, two years previously - this would have been considered quite impossible, an absurd and evil idea?

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

The 17th century was a very literate century, more literate than our own. They wrote letters, they wrote tracts, they wrote plays, they wrote poetry, they wrote constitutional proposals - and debated forever and a day.

And they were happy to listen to two or three hour sermons. They really did like words.

Political journalism was born in the 1640’s (with Marchamont Nedham perhaps the first political journalist) and this was the time of poets like Marvell and Milton.

And as I read and listen, I see the issues that gripped their souls and discern patterns of behaviour as events unfold. I note the lies, the alliances and the fall-outs and very quickly, these figures become people quite as real as my friends and neighbours.

I know them so well.

And as a former writer of TV and radio comedies such as ‘Spitting Image’, I enjoy creating the dialogue that both joins these characters and separates them.

Our words do this, they both join and separate.

And amid the power struggles, there are some very funny moments, like the king getting stuck in the prison window…and Edmund Ludlow and Oliver Cromwell having a cushion fight.

True.

What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

What are they eating? Who are they fearing? Where are they living? What are they reading? Why are they crying? How are they talking to each other? What is their God like? Who are they killing? What are they hoping? 

Do you see any particular trends in Historical Fiction?

I don’t see one single trend – apart, perhaps, from a fine obsession with King Henry and his wives.

Historical fiction is a large, unregulated field, a hugely varied genre. Some books are what one might call ‘fiction in tights’ - yes, it’s in another century, but most of it is invention.

My novel is at the other end of the scale, staying closely with the history. The last year in the life of King Charles is a famous story which nobody knows. You couldn’t make it up – so I didn’t.

Historical fiction is similar to chocolate in this regard. How much cocoa do you want? 30%? 50% 70%?

You want a stonkingly good story, of course you do. But how much history do you like?


Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’ is the story of the last year in the life of Charles 1, the only English king to be executed.

I have to say, I think it’s one of the most gripping tales in English history, a time of national turbulence and uncertainty, (rather like today) and I’ve told it by weaving together four coinciding stories: those of Charles, including his extraordinary year-long imprisonment on the Isle of Wight; Robert Hammond, the poor man who found himself the king’s gaoler; the remarkable Jane Whorwood - super-spy and Charles’ mistress (written out of the records by royalists) and of course the brilliant, kindly, violent and depressed Oliver Cromwell working through his demons of religion, politics, love and death.

This was not the age of toleration: it was a conflict of different visions of authority, in which love, lust, prayer, high-mindedness and political treachery flourished.

It was an age when God was on everyone’s side and there’s no better recipe for hate than that.

And it was an age – the only age - in which the English put their king on trial.

How did that happen? 

 
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