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Mantel and me on historical fiction

Posted by Simon Parke, 10 April 2017, 10.49am

Hilary Mantel can be blunt.

As she revealed in a recent interview:

‘The most frequent question writers are asked is some variant on, ‘Do you write every day or do you just wait for inspiration to strike?’ I want to snarl, ‘Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist?’’

I like the rage on display, the disdain for the ‘hobbyist’ label.

But even if you do write every day – and writers tend to, its a discipline - it doesn’t mean you’ll get noticed.

Mantel is home and dry as far as publicity is concerned, no worries on that front.

But for the rest of us, I’m told only 2% of books are reviewed in the national press.

More and more books and (due to a decrease in advertising) less and less space…it’s not a good equation for writers.

You could say, ‘I must do more research!’

But if you do, think twice about adding a bibliography as proof of your labours and your academic seriousness.

In another interview, Mantel rounded on her ‘cringing’ contemporaries in historical fiction who ‘try to burnish their credentials by affixing a bibliography’.

‘You have the authority of the imagination, you have legitimacy,’ she says. ‘Take it. Do not spend your life in apologetic cringing because you think you are some inferior form of historian. The trades are different but complementary.’

Mantel has done her research, of course, many many hours spent in the British Library.

It’s just that she’s not pretending to be a historian; she’s a novelist…and a novelist fills in the gaps.

Sometimes the gaps are quite large.

I heard one writer talking about his new book. It arose from the discovery that his grandfather had ‘spent some of the war in India.’

Nothing else was known – just that he spent some time there during the war. What followed was an historical novel based on one known fact.

That leaves a lot of gaps to fill.

The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover’, my own recent historical novel, is a little different.

It follows the last eighteen months in the life of Charles 1, a well-documented (if little known) narrative featuring many known facts.

But how England walked towards the execution of their king - the people through whom these events happened, their hearts and minds in these shifting times – well, I’ve filled in some gaps.

I agree with Mantel. Historians and novelists are not the same, they are different trades…but complimentary.

I still have this mad idea that good historical fiction makes the facts truer in some manner.

The facts give birth to the fiction, shape it like a parent; and fiction is the hand maid of the facts, bowing to them, serving them, nurturing them, infusing them and enlivening.

Some 17th conversations we know, for instance. They are recorded, like the one between Charles 1st, his executioner and the bishop on the Whitehall scaffold.

So they stay as they are.

Other conversations must be imagined, gaps filled with emotional truth.

Can it enrich history?

One sceptical Oxford professor of 17th century history was kind enough to be converted a little to my fictional take on his period.

‘I can see how cleverly you have devised the book and used the sources,’ he said, ‘and what vitality you have brought to the story.’

But when the tide goes out, and all is quiet, only the facts remain on the shore line, all else was but a dream.

I am presently at work on a further historical novel, aware only that I have much to learn.

With Milton - a 17th century literary giant who himself wrote historical fiction - I ask, ‘What in me is dark, illumine.’

And when I’m feeling weak and a failure, I also ask that other novelist’s question:

How on earth do I get reviewed?’

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