I’m thrilled to host historical fiction author, Margaret Skea, who is kicking off a discussion about the difference between “historical fiction” and “historical novels”. Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!
And without further ado…
By Margaret Skea
Last weekend I had the huge pleasure of appearing at an historical fiction festival in a little town in the Highlands of Scotland, organised by probably the most enthusiastic bookshop owner in Britain – a small lady (who makes me feel tall) with a huge heart, named Marjory Marshall. It will be a big loss to Scotland’s literary scene if she ever retires.
The format was interesting and a little different. It was a whole day event, though folk could choose to come to the morning or afternoon sessions or both.
Each of the authors had a chance to introduce their book and give a short reading, followed in both sessions by a panel discussion, with the audience also participating.
I was chairing the morning panel discussion, focusing on four historical periods – the Reformation, Mary Queen of Scots’ lifetime, the Covenanters, and the Cromwellian era. We covered issues including the influence and important of religious belief to characters and to plot; writing about conflict; handling the interaction between historical and fictional characters; conveying a sense of place; and the pros and cons of different tenses and viewpoint.
All good stuff, particularly the varied perspectives and approaches to writing which were revealed, and it was clearly of interest to the very responsive audience.
The controversy, though, came in the afternoon session, which divided us authors into two distinct camps. It began with a seemingly innocuous question about balancing fact and fiction and finished with Marjory suggesting a way of defining and dividing historicals into ‘historical fiction’ and ‘historical novel’.
Now, I’ve always thought of myself as an historical novelist, and it seems by Marjory’s definition, I may be right. Two authors were ranged alongside me, with the remaining two on the other side of the debate.
Of course my novels are works of fiction – they certainly don’t purport to be non-fiction – but two aspects are really important to me – creating as authentic a picture of the period as I can, based on solid research and, crucially, when I am dealing with an historic character, trying to present as close a reflection of the real person as is possible, given the historical evidence available. I finish my ‘Authors note’ in my Katharina books with the statement:
‘This book is a work of fiction, and although based on extensive research, the Katharina depicted here is my own interpretation. I hope I have done her justice.’
It is that final sentence which really matters to me, and it is in this area of a ‘moral responsibility’ to historical characters, however long dead, where the division of opinion emerged. All five of us believe absolutely in the essential nature of good research to underpin our writing, but those who opposed my view, did so on the basis that the needs of story are paramount and trump the evidence.
Now, I don’t have a problem with tweaking minor points of history if the story demands it, though it’s unlikely to be controversial, and I will always confess any deviation from attested history in my author’s note; but what I won’t do is to ‘bad mouth’ an historical character, without good evidence. And this was the crux of the debate. One author was happy to make her main (historical) character have an affair because she felt it added to the impact of the story, despite the lack of any evidence. ‘This is fiction’ she said, ‘If the story demands it, do it.’
There are several counter arguments to this view – amongst them a responsibility to living descendants of the character in question, the realistic or otherwise depiction of the person concerned and, importantly, the fact that, like it or not, many people learn their history from fiction. That being the case, as well as a moral responsibility to the character, I also feel a responsibility to readers, not to mislead them. The opposing authors felt equally strongly that any misinterpretation of history remains the reader’s own responsibility.
And so to Marjory’s distinction between an ‘historical novel’, in which the author seeks to remain true to the history that underpins it, and ‘historical fiction’ in which, while the background is of importance, the story is king. Interestingly, one of the novelists who shared my view had written a novel in which all of the key characters were fictional, yet she still felt it was important to ensure she remained within the bounds of known history, for the sake of readers.
Lest you think blood was shed, we all parted friends, but the vigorous argument indicated clearly that there are two distinct schools of thought in this respect and it’s a debate that’s likely to run and run…
What do you think?
Margaret Skea is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Short story credits include Neil Gunn, Fish, the Historical Novel Society, and Mslexia. Her debut novel, Turn of the Tide, the first book in a Scottish trilogy – including A House Divided and By Sword and Storm, gained her the Beryl Bainbridge Award for ‘Best First-Time Novelist 2014’. She is now a hybrid author publishing both through a mainstream publisher, Corazon, and under her own imprint, Sanderling Books.
Katharina: Deliverance, a fictionalized biography based on the life of the reformer Martin Luther’s wife, was placed 2nd in the Historical Novel Society new Novel Award 2018. The sequel, Katharina Fortitude, was released in July 2019.
She is particularly interested in the challenge of bringing relatively unknown historical characters out of the shadows. In an attempt to embrace the digital age she now has her own website at www.margaretskea.com and you can also follow her on Twitter , Facebook or Amazon.