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Spectator article on the new Historical Writers' Association

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Margaret
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Spectator article on the new Historical Writers' Association

Post by Margaret » Thu July 7th, 2011, 9:12 pm

Interesting article by Dr. Ian Mortimer, who writes historical fiction and nonfiction, mostly about the tensions between historians and historical novelists.
Browse over 5000 historical novel listings (probably well over 5000 by now, but I haven't re-counted lately) and over 700 reviews at www.HistoricalNovels.info

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Post by fljustice » Fri July 8th, 2011, 3:48 pm

Thanks for the post, Margaret!
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Post by annis » Fri July 8th, 2011, 6:24 pm

Interesting article, especially in light of earlier comments in the Guardian by Anthony Beevor about the iniquities of historical novelists in traducing historical personages :) There's also been quite a bit of comment lately on historians investing popular histories with theories which are not much more than speculation and/or wishful thinking, so I don't think there's any right or wrong side here. Mortimer makes a strong point - historical novels which last are the ones which have something meaningful to say about the universal human condition.

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Post by Alisha Marie Klapheke » Sat July 9th, 2011, 1:15 am

Thanks for posting this, Margaret. It is interesting who wants who to approve of what they do.

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Post by fljustice » Sat July 9th, 2011, 5:23 pm

[quote=""annis""]There's also been quite a bit of comment lately on historians investing popular histories with theories which are not much more than speculation and/or wishful thinking, so I don't think there's any right or wrong side here. [/quote]

That was one of my peeves with the Schiff biography of Cleopatra. She ascribes emotions and thoughts to the subjects, and sometimes even describes voices (unless there was a primary source, and I doubt it, how would she know what a voice sounded like?) There is a difference between writing, "She was angry" and "so and so reported she threw a pot at his head." I don't mind biographers/historians speculating, but I want it clearly marked.
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Sat July 9th, 2011, 6:02 pm

[quote=""Alisha Marie Klapheke""] Thanks for posting this, Margaret. It is interesting who wants who to approve of what they do.[/quote]
I remember going to a talk by Sarah Dunant put on by Stanford's History department. Maybe it was the venue, but the strongest impression I came away with was, "I am seriously glad I don't have a doctorate in history!" The poor woman described being worried to death about what historians would say when she shortened the period of Savonorola's rule in Florence by one year to suit her plot. I was thinking, "This is probably the first time 90% of your readers have ever even heard about Savonorola. They'll tank you for bringing him out of obscurity!"
The friend I went to the lecture with has a doctorate in Reformation history. She's been working on the same novel for four years, her scholarly self squashing her storytelling side. Mind you, I like accuracy. But the first job of fiction is to ENTERTAIN.

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Post by parthianbow » Mon July 11th, 2011, 6:15 am

[quote=""MLE""]Mind you, I like accuracy. But the first job of fiction is to ENTERTAIN.[/quote]

Hear, hear!
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Post by annis » Mon July 11th, 2011, 7:06 pm

I suspect the answer to why writers of popular non-fiction histories are "sexing up" their work may lie here!

Quote from Mortimer: "You only need to appreciate how few copies of ‘popular’ non-fiction history sell to appreciate the problem here. Only nine or ten history books sold more than 20,000 copies in 2010, and a historian selling 6,000 hardbacks and 30,000 paperbacks will struggle to make £30,000 over two years."

It gets even more complicated when authors enter the cross-over sphere, writing both HF and popular non-histories, like, for example, Alison Weir. Where do you draw the line?
Last edited by annis on Tue July 12th, 2011, 5:54 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by parthianbow » Tue July 12th, 2011, 4:15 pm

[quote=""annis""]I suspect the answer to why popular non-fiction histories are "sexing up" their work may lie here! "Only nine or ten history books sold more than 20,000 copies in 2010, and a historian selling 6,000 hardbacks and 30,000 paperbacks will struggle to make £30,000 over two years." [/quote]

Amen to that.

The average published author in the UK makes the paltry sum of £4000/ $6000 per year. :(
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Spartacus - UK release 19 Jan. 2012. US release June 2012.

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Post by EC2 » Tue July 12th, 2011, 4:49 pm

Interesting. The Historical Novel Society was there long before the HWA and welcomes non fiction writers and historians among its ranks (and many have joined) even while its title refers to novelists, so it's not true to say the HWA, sterling though it is, is unique.
I have a very good friend (a medieval historian) who is writing a doctorate on the interface between the novelist and the historian. She's giving a paper on the subject at Leeds Conference - well she'll have given it by now, but self, Sharon Penman and Helen Hollick among others helped her at the outset of the project.
I shall be a panelist in November at the University of London, discussing that interface between historians and fiction writers, and how much a divide can be crossed. Ian Mortimer will be a fellow panelist and it will be interesting to see what kind of discussion comes up, especially as Alison Weir is the plenary speaker!
Having been researching Eleanor of Aquitaine of late, I can say that many historical biographers have definitely crossed the line between fact and fiction!
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