Thursday, February 4, 2016

Walking the Tight-Rope of Historicity and Fiction

Richard Denham, co-author of the Britannia series with M J Trow, discusses the joys and sacrifices of writing historical fiction. The third book in their series ‘The Warlords’ is now available and Richard talks to us about walking the tight-rope of historicity and fiction.

When I first set out to write the Britannia series with Mei, I was keen for it to be as historically accurate as possible. However, I soon learned that fiction and historical accuracy don’t make the best of friends. If you lean too much towards historicity, a book becomes too heavy, too scholarly and far too sluggish for the average reader. If you lean too far the other way, towards fiction, the story runs away, and glaring historical errors will put off readers to the point that the story should be considered fantasy rather than historical fiction.

So this was the challenge Mei and I faced when we first put pen to paper for Britannia. As is well known, the Dark Ages weren’t called that for nothing! However, search through the rubble long enough and you start to pick up interesting pieces of information. The hagiographies of Saints of the age, though arguably embellished and dramatized – do provide an interesting glimpse into this enigmatic time. Historical arguments are also very useful; compare the Welsh folklore of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion for example with the panegyrics and damnatio memoriae of Rome and you can start to make sense of it all.

There are many compromises that have to be made to keep a work of historical fiction engaging and well-paced. If we were too orthodox with timings and years of events, the pace of the story would suddenly stop and we would find empty years where our characters were sitting twiddling their thumbs – which would no doubt put off the average reader who is looking, above all, to be entertained. So occasionally, some events must be concertinaed.

Some changes we hope won’t cause any problems for the reader. For instance the spirit and governmental structure of Rome had changed considerably from the days of Caesar and Anthony – the time which most people think of when they think of Rome. Britain itself was called a diocese, ruled by a vicarius but because of the ecclesiastical connotations which didn’t exist then, it simply didn’t ring true for us and thought it confused matters so we didn't use that word at all.

Another example is Valentinus, our protagonist from Part I: The Wall. His involvement in the ‘Great Conspiracy’ of Britain in 367 and later events is unclear, but we were quite comfortable making him our villain throughout the story.

There is no question that the Dark Ages were an enigmatic time, with the British outside of the Church rarely writing things down, and preferring instead the oral tradition of Bardic culture. However, the same can be said for all history – history is not science, some things are beyond dispute, but history is written by people with an agenda, and that is an unavoidable part of human nature. The significance of a German-style military belt dug up somewhere in Essex by an archaeologist can be interpreted a dozen different ways. Where history is like science is that it is always improving, disagreeing with itself and challenging accepted beliefs. It is not so much a case of proving what happened, but disproving what didn’t. Think for example of the legends of King Arthur, the layers of myth piled on top of him and all the historical paradigm shifts he has been facing since he was (or wasn’t) alive.

Being an author of historical fiction is much like being a detective in some messy and confusing crime scene. Disagreements with colleagues over the significance of certain evidence, analysing claims and counter-claims from those involved, filtering through the irrelevant and biased to find some core element of truth. Luckily for Mei and me, this is something we enjoy.

Of course, it is all open to debate – and the writer of historical fiction will soon discover that. There will be those who disagree with you at either end of the spectrum. What is important is to try to find an acceptable middle and come to terms with the fact that you have written a work of fiction, and historicity will always take collateral damage as a result. Mei and I enjoy the challenge; history and storytelling is a passion of ours. As we creep closer to the elusive figure of King Arthur and move away from the relative evidential comforts of Roman Britain, this is something that will be all the more challenging.

Ultimately, if Britannia sparks people’s interest in the Age of Heroes and encourages them to do their own research and make up their own minds, then that for me is the best success of all.

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Britannia: Part III: The Warlords has been published by Thistle Publishing and is available in e-book and paperback formats from Amazon. For more information visit www.britannia-series.co.uk



3 comments:

  1. This would be an uneasy balance to keep. The Britannia series sounds great.

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  2. Love it! I've talked about this with other historical authors (I write historical fiction set in the Dark Ages myself), and we all agree that history is important, but a good story comes first. We're authors after all:)

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  3. Great post Richard! Love how you equate writing historical fiction to being a detective at a crime scene - I often feel like that, sifting through the meagre offerings and ambiguous chronicles of the Dark Ages!

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