I’m not quite sure what I expected from last night’s Historical Fiction Masterclass run by Writers and Artists, but with around fifty people crowded in a room in Bedford Square on a very rainy night in London town, it was more about the chemistry of the two presenters – Celia Brayfield and Sarah Dunant – than learning how to craft a novel.
So I’m pleased that I knew enough about the crafty stuff (in theory anyway!) to sit back and watch as the sparks flew and ideas were thrown around. What soon became clear is that historical fiction (and maybe all fiction?) involves a number of paradoxes:
- the reader seeks reassurance in the similarity of past and present while marvelling at the differences
- the writer must tap into the consensual understanding of a historical period as well as making it fresh( i.e authenticity is about convincing the reader rather than being totally faithful to historical facts)
When the audience were invited to nominate favourite reads other dilemmas came up, like the question of whether to use a voice that is clear and accessible to the reader or one that reflects the ‘otherness’ of the period/character. Books of each variety were equally loved.
As often happens with these things there was really one thing in particular I latched on to. As Jean Burnett says here, we can’t ever portray the past exactly as it was because we will always reflect it through the prism of our own understanding and beliefs (and because of this we can hopefully do it – see above! – ) in a way that will appeal to our contemporaries. BUT Sarah Dunant made the point that even if we can never know exactly how people spoke to each other in a given period, or which sounds smells or tastes they actually noticed, we must give it our best shot, i.e. our guess must be the guess of an expert, and one that no one could actually prove wrong. Sadly there wasn’t much time for discussing how this conflicted with Celia’s preference for allowing fiction to dictate over fact in certain circumstances, so that’s another of the paradoxes we had to consider.
Going back to the research question, to be an historical expert is a daunting task for a non-historian but I sided with Sarah in appreciating that knowledge in this case is actually freedom. The writer must make choices in what to include or leave out but these choices should be based on knowing all there is to know. Research can throw up things that make us tear our hair out and sometimes feels like a straight-jacket, but it’s not. The more research we do the more stuff we have to use.
What we do with it then is up to us.