Brighton and Hove libraries have many literary groups and do a lot to support writers. I’ve been to a number of workshops myself over the years and so was honoured to be invited by the lovely Roger Bluff to deliver a workshop on historical fiction writing to the Hatchery Writers. See Ann Perrin’s blog for more information about the group.
If I achieved one thing in this workshop, it was that the group left with the confidence that they could write historical fiction.
Rufius is my third novel, although my first published. It nearly didn’t get written due to the challenge of history. It was my belief back in 2003 that historical novelists of the classical period were historians, or with knowledge of that magnitude and schoolgirl Latin and Carry On Cleo were not enough. Of course research was required – and in my case, research was extensive (I did a PhD). However, what I learnt about historical fiction writing was this:
- It is the novelists’ decision about their departure from the history
- The most important thing is the ‘story’
- To draw the reader in is nothing particular to historical fiction, but the usual use of the senses: smell, sound, touch, sight, taste
All historical fiction is anachronistic as it is displaced in time and often in language. However, authentic historical detail is necessary whether a writer is aiming at ‘the appearance of authenticity’, like Alan Massie and Steven Saylor, or whether one is writing anachronistic historical fiction like Evaristo’s brilliant novel, The Emperor’s Babe, or Christoph Ransmayr’s The Last World. But the way in which authentic details are incorporated does not mean that anachronism should be avoided. On the contrary, Evaristo and Ransmayr’s books draw the reader into the world of the novel just as effectively as those writers who aspire to an appearance of authenticity, or plausibility. In Ransmayr’s novel for example, the death of the Emperor is ‘announced by megaphone to the silent empire.’ Within the world of this novel, the mixing of modern technology and ancient history works. As long as the author is consistent with their approach, anachronism can add to the atmosphere and the story.
My thesis dealt with the choices novelists make when deciding where to position what I have called the ‘Pivot of Authenticity’ in fiction: the relationship of the author with history. If you would like to read more about my theory of composition in historical novel writing, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rufius will email you the relevant extract of my thesis (it’s accessible and jargon is explained).
The best way to learn is to write. After talking about my inspiration for writing Rufius (sparked by an ancient manuscript in the British Library), and different approaches to writing historical fiction taken by authors, I suggested a writing exercise.
As we were in Hove, we used old photos of the Palace Pier in the 1900s (before the fire) to give us a springboard into story. I asked the group to not worry about the history of the period, but to describe from the perspective of the character, or narrator of their story, the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, and smells experienced.
After 20 minutes of scribbling, we shared our work. I was very impressed with the standard. We had a broad range of stories from philandering husbands hot under the collar in old-fashioned coats, to childhood memories of bathing huts – and one remarkable piece by Matthew merged Sci-Fi with historical fiction as his character was chucked out on the Palace pier through a worm-hole. Brilliant pieces, all of which deserved to be worked on more fully. It was no surprise that some of the writers were published or had won early acclaim for their work already.
Afterwards the lovely Hatchery writers took me to a Hove café to continue our conversation about historical fiction. I was very happy that they got so much out of it and have invited me back to teach again.
A productive & fun morning – a special thank you to Hatchery Writers secretary, Roger Bluff
Buy copy of Rufius on Amazon