January 9, 2010

Hilary Mantel gave a class on writing historical fiction at Somerset House.

Top Tips

  • Question every historical fact you think you know, and never take the word of a single source.
  • Learn to tolerate strange world views. Don’t pervert the values of the past. Women in former eras were downtrodden and frequently assented to it. Generally speaking, our ancestors were not tolerant, liberal or democratic. Your characters probably did not read the Guardian, and very likely believed in hellfire, beating children and hanging malefactors. Can you live with that?
  • Don’t rearrange history to suit your plot. Make a virtue of the constraints of the facts, or write some other form of fiction.
  • Don’t show off. Your reader only needs to know about one tenth of what you know. Depth of research gives the writer confidence and suppleness, but doesn’t need to be demonstrated on every page.

Recommended Reading

The best historical fiction transcends genre. These recommendations, all twentieth century or contemporary works, are all distinguished as purely as literature, and all convey a direct and visceral sense of the eras they portray. They all have techniques to teach the would-be historical novelist: as a bonus, some of them are funny too.

The Siege of Krishnapur: JG Farrell. A besieged British garrison in India, 1857. This 1973 Booker winner is quirky, ironic and self-aware; it shows that the historical novel need not be solemn to be great.

-Two books by Barry Unsworth: Morality Play, a short, perfectly pitched medieval mystery, a little gem of a book without a false note. Losing Nelson: a present day obsessive begins a painful and necessary interrogation of the legend of his hero.

The Year of The French: Thomas Flanagan. Epic and involving story of the 1798 Irish rebellion: a heavyweight traditional novel, and a model of how to pinpoint individual lives against a huge canvas.

All Souls Rising by Madison Smartt Bell: an unsparing, frightening, hugely ambitious portrayal of Haiti in the slave rising of the 1790s. From its opening pages, one of the most powerful, mesmerising works of fiction I’ve ever read. Not for those of a delicate disposition.

Mr Wroe’s Virgins by Jane Rogers. In Lancashire in the 1820s, the self-appointed prophet Mr Wroe decides that Ashton-under-Lyne will be the new Jerusalem. Seven ill-assorted women are his handmaidens, and share the narrative. This fine, slyly humorous and unpredictable novel comes from an underrated author and is based on a true story. The informed imagination meets the facts, and produces true insight.

A Dead Man in Deptford. Anthony Burgess. It’s notoriously tricky to write about writers, but Antony Burgess swerves elegantly around every pitfall; this insouciant novel about Christopher Marlowe has such style that you want to put down the book, laugh and applaud. A bravura performance.

True Grit by Charles Portiss: From mid-life, an American spinster looks back with laconic approbation on her teenage self, who in pursuit of her father’s killer cut a bloody trail of revenge through the Old West. Another short book with not a word out of place, and a special narrative voice beautifully contrived and controlled. The recent Coen brothers film preserves its tone.

Passion by Jude Morgan: Bryon, Shelley, Keats, their wives, their lovers, their short and dramatic lives: it ought not to work, but in some exhilarating way it does. It’s a big multi-stranded narrative woven with skill and commitment by an author who is both sensitive and bold.

Girl, Reading by Katie Ward: Linked stories from a brilliant new writer; a masterclass in voice, effortlessly inhabiting seven different eras.