The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

I’m delighted to host writer Catherine Hokin‘s guest post as a ‘stop’ on the blog tour for her début novel Blood and Roses.  Over to Catherine…Blood and Roses Blog Tour

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

When Helen suggested I write about the challenges of creating historical as opposed to contemporary fiction, the first thing that popped into my head was that quote from L.P. Hartley, ingrained in my brain since the far-off days of A Levels.

Sorry Mr Hartley, I’m not sure I agree.

chairI write both contemporary and historical fiction and, although the modern tales may be far shorter, the starting point is always the same: a character who creeps into my brain and demands a voice.

It possibly sounds flippant but most fiction is essentially historical – unless you are tackling science fiction, you are writing about what has already happened. What changes is perspective: as we move further from away from a period in time we can gain more insight, uncover more secrets, perhaps find the emotional distance needed to fully present a scene.

horse (1)There are challenges of course. My novel Blood and Roses is set in the fifteenth century and every detail has to be carefully researched. My character, Margaret of Anjou, moves around a lot and that involved some very strange calculations: I can now mentally divide a journey by the amount of hours different types of horses can travel quicker than I can find directions on Google Maps. But research, while the key to a credible story, needs a delicate hand to balance the need for accuracy and the explanation of possibly obscure customs against the danger of bludgeoning the reader to death with facts only a PhD student needs. But all good novelists have to do this, whatever their time frame.

Another challenge is language: my novel is set in the fifteenth century but, if I wrote it using the words and dialect current at the time, my readers would need to be able to read Norman French, Middle English and Latin and then apply a Midlands-style accent to it all. I would like to sell some copies. Conversely, the dialogue cannot be modernised to the point where it feels as though Edward IV is about to summon his army by text and hook up with Elizabeth Woodville via Tinder – an accusation quite fairly levelled against the recent BBC adaptation of The White Queen. Again, a delicate hand is needed to create a medieval but accessible feel.

cracked (1)And setting – the medieval period was not fragrant, people had horrid illnesses and deformities and your average street was a cesspool. Can I direct you to the hilarious If Disney Cartoons Were Historically Accurate video at this point – it makes the case for reality beautifully. To my mind a good historical novelist needs to give a flavour of the time but not constantly turn the readers’ stomach – although I hope I will make you shudder once or twice.

selfie (1)So why am I disagreeing with Mr Hartley? I don’t agree that the past is a foreign country, it simply has different shades. And I don’t think people do things differently – their tools and the language they express themselves in might change but essentially people do things out of love or anger or spite or any of the other emotions we all recognise whatever timeframe we’ve fallen into.

claire (1)When I embarked on Blood and Roses, one thing quickly became very clear: I was looking into the past for Margaret of Anjou but the woman I found fits perfectly into the present. Margaret is a powerful, flawed and conflicted woman, trying to control events that threaten her family and her sense of self. She is an ambitious woman and that frightens the men around her – she breaks the mould of what is expected of her and she pays. Look around you – Margaret isn’t medieval, she’s everywhere. The past is simply people, very little is foreign about that.

Thanks to Catherine for this really interesting post. Do you feel historical fiction is more challenging as a writer? Is it also challenging as a reader?

Blood and Rosesa novel of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses by Catherine Hokin and was published by Yolk Publishing on 13th January.

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Blood and Roses

A few months ago, I met fellow writer Catherine Hokin at Weegie Wednesday, the monthly networking group for people connected to books, publishing, book-selling – illustrators, comic book writers, drama, radio, TV, media and all related creative industries, and we’ve kept in touch to share our experiences of the path to publication as début novelists.

Phone 274Catherine’s début, Blood and Roses, is a novel about Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. It’s the story of a woman caught up in the pursuit of power, playing a game ultimately no one can control…

If you’re hooked and keen to read Blood and Roses you’ll need to wait until January 2016 to get your mitts on a copy! But in the meantime, I’ve invited Catherine to tell us a bit more about the book and her writing.

Can you tell us about Blood and Roses and where the idea for it came from?

I have been fascinated by the Wars of the Roses for as long as I can remember. My father was a member of the Richard III Society and an avid amateur historian – I’m sure as a child I used to think most of the characters involved in the battles were still alive they were discussed so much! I went on to study history at university, specialising in the medieval period and, in particular, the role of political propaganda and the portrayal of women. Shakespeare may be a great play-write but his history plays are not to be trusted and our main ideas of Margaret have come through her portrayal in Henry VI and Richard III – the almost cartoonish evil queen. This novel marries a lot of my interests together – it even throws in a bit of witchcraft!

Blood & RosesThe cover is striking and very apt for a historical novel, did you have a say in the design?

I did and I’m grateful to Yolk Publishing for how much they gave me. It was essential that the cover was not ‘feminine’ – this is a bloody story and she was a powerful woman. Anyone looking for historical romance will be disappointed! The cover image is of Margaret and I think shows an uncompromising, strong woman. The colour is perfect.

How did you research your book? Are you a meticulous planner? How long did it take to write?

Obsessive and meticulous – the hallmarks of an historical fiction writer! To borrow from LP Hartley, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” That is both the delight and the frustration of historical research – everything is fascinating but some things have to be omitted or only alluded to if the poor reader isn’t going to drown under a mountain of facts only a PhD student needs. I think there’s an equation along the lines of: 1 sentence = 10 pages of research + 5 overly-distracting diversions. Huge amounts of research and detailed planning – it took about 2 years to complete that stage (I can only do this part-time) and another year to write, and rewrite.

What’re your plans for the launch of Blood and Roses?

This happens in January and I think the publishers plan to keep me busy! There will be a London launch plus a Glasgow one and hopefully other events in York and Tewkesbury. I hope to be able to organise blog tours, batter everyone I know into buying it and push the word out – my husband is eyeing up his 8000 LinkedIn contacts…As you know, this is the tough bit – anyone who wants to help, I’d love to hear from you!

Do you plan to write another historical novel or would you like to try a different genre?

I am working hard on book 2 – again historical fiction, this time set in the fourteenth century and a re-evaluation of the love affair between John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and Katherine Swynford, his long-term mistress and an ancestor of mine. It is a political treatment rather than a romance. After that I’ve got my eye on Jack the Ripper – I do like the blood…

 

Thanks to Catherine for her insight into writing historical fiction, a genre I feel must challenge a writer by having the added pressure of getting facts right.

Do you agree that research makes historical fiction more difficult to write than contemporary fiction? Are you a fan of reading historical fiction or do you prefer books set in modern times?