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From historical fact to historical fiction

Historian and novelist James Aitcheson on making the transition from fact to fiction, why research matters, and the power of historical novels to challenge myths and misconceptions.

One of the most common questions that historical novelists get asked is: where do you draw the line between fact and fiction? Achieving the right balance is a tricky business, and as a historian-turned-novelist, it’s a question that’s of particular importance to me.

I’m the author of (so far) three novels set in England during the turbulent and violent years following 1066, the latest of which, Knights of the Hawk (The Conquest), has recently been published in paperback (Arrow, £6.99). Before turning my attention to writing fiction set in the past, though, I studied History at Cambridge, where I specialised in the Middle Ages and became fascinated with Anglo-Saxon England and the Norman Conquest. When it comes to research nowadays, my approach is every bit as rigorous as if I were writing a non-fiction history. Many people rely on historical novels to teach them something about what life was like in the past, so I feel a certain measure of responsibility not to misinform my readers but to supply an accurate depiction of life in the past.

How, then, does a historical novelist go about creating something that engages, entertains, is accessible to and appeals to a modern audience, but which at the same time retains its historical integrity, communicates an accurate depiction of life in the past and remains sensitive to the attitudes and beliefs of the period?

Naturally, it’s important to do one’s research. Even though I already had a good grounding in the period when I began writing, there were still many small details that I realised I needed to find out.Over the course of three books, I’ve read up on everything from the design of Norman longships to the practice of medieval medicine, musical instruments, food and drink, the different stages involved in the production of parchment, and even fashions in clothing and hairstyles. My investigations have also involved talking to re-enactors of medieval warfare and watching them in action, and making site visits to better understand the lie of the land in many of the key locations featured in the books. So in many ways it could be said that the demands of fiction have actually led me to broaden my sights as a historian.

But it’s not just about visualising the physical trappings of the period. More important still is understanding the thought-world that your characters would have inhabited: their attitudes towards religion, family and society, all of which will determine how they are likely to reason, speak and behave. Without this knowledge, they can only ever come across as twenty-first century people dressed in period costume. The dynamic between author and reader is all about confidence and suspension of disbelief. If the scene-setting and characterisation fail to convince, then readers will begin to disengage from the story. So doing one’s research is about more than simply historical integrity: it’s part and parcel of building a compelling world.

Inevitably, though, the author will sometimes have to make compromises, and take liberties with the material at his disposal. The requirements of the novel as a form, and expectations of plot, character and structure, mean that a certain amount of invention, distortion or simplification is always going to be necessary to fit the real history into a tightly packaged narrative. Deciding how much compromise is acceptable is, of course, a highly subjective thing.

As far as possible, I try to operate within the bounds of what is known, although, as all historians know well, in many cases the ‘facts’ are open to interpretation, and it can be very difficult to pin down precise details. This is especially the case when dealing with the Middle Ages, the primary sources for which can be notoriously fragmentary, and don’t always give us the kind of information that would be most useful to the writer.

For example, one character who plays a key role in my novels is the sheriff of York at the time, a real-life individual by the name of William Malet. But whether he was a fussy administrator or a cold and iron-fisted governor, or even whether he was tall or short, fat or thin, hirsute or bald, we simply have no idea, and the same goes for most individuals featured in medieval primary sources. The only recourse for novelists is to read between the lines, supplying the missing information using their own imagination and attributing to characters thoughts, backstories and motivations that are unrecorded in the sources.

At other times, there might be pragmatic reasons for having characters behave in ways that are slightly anachronistic. Medieval people were deeply religious by our standards, but I suspect that if my characters invoked God and the saints as often as their real-life counterparts probably did, it would quickly begin to grate with the modern reader. Likewise it’s rare in dialogue for authors to try to reproduce archaic manners of speech; more often they settle for a style that sounds more modern, but with period flourishes and quirks. In both cases, strict authenticity is sacrificed in exchange for accessibility.

Given the range of compromises involved in writing a historical novel, then, what does the genre have to offer that non-fiction history might ordinarily struggle to provide? In my view, the great strength of fiction lies in is its ability to place us directly in the shoes – and inside the minds – of people other than ourselves, exposing us to unfamiliar points of view, and challenging myths and misconceptions. This is exactly what I’ve set out to do in my Conquest Series.

Sworn SwordSet during the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings, Sworn Sword (The Conquest) and its sequels tell the story of the English rebellions against William I. From the beginning, though, I knew that I didn’t want to rework the familiar trope of the valiant but tragically doomed struggle of the Anglo-Saxons against their foreign oppressors. To talk about the Conquest in such black-and-white terms, as a struggle between the ‘good’ English and the ‘evil’ Normans, seemed to me a gross oversimplification.

For that reason I decided to try to give the story of 1066 and its aftermath an unfamiliar twist. My protagonist, Tancred, isn’t one of the rebels, but an ambitious Norman knight who has come to England in search of wealth, land and glory. By telling the story of these years through his eyes, I’m hoping to show that, far from being merciless thugs, many of Normans were complex human beings who genuinely believed in the righteousness of their cause, and that in reality the Conquest was a much more complicated and morally messy affair than is generally recognised.

© The History Vault

About James Aitcheson

James Aitcheson’s latest novel, Knights of the Hawk, is out now. To find out more, and for updates about his work, visit his website at www.jamesaitcheson.com or follow him on Twitter (@JamesAitcheson).

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