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Spectator article on the new Historical Writers' Association

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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fljustice
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Post by fljustice » Tue July 12th, 2011, 5:41 pm

[quote=""EC2""]Question: Is it easier for a novelist to become a decent historian than it is for a historian to become a decent novelist?[/quote]

Very good question! I've always considered myself an "amateur" historian because I don't have a degree in history, but I've done as much or more research on the early 5th C, than most Ph.D's do for their thesis. Also having been an academic (not in the humanities), I know how hard it is to shed that dry writing style. My blog posts always sound like lectures at first. I go through the first drafts eliminating fluff, substituting shorter words and making it sound conversational. I find it much easier to shed the "Little Professor Syndrome" in fiction than non-fiction.
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Margaret
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Preferred HF: Literary novels. Late medieval and Renaissance.
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Post by Margaret » Tue July 12th, 2011, 7:24 pm

Is it easier for a novelist to become a decent historian than it is for a historian to become a decent novelist?
I would say yes. A historian has to do sound research and exercise good judgment about what is implied by the historical record and what is only speculation. Novelists need this skill as much as historians do. Even a contemporary novelist has to research her characters' professions, their hometowns, living circumstances, etc. But a novelist also needs good psychological insight, an ear for the way people talk, the ability to manage the flow of events and information in the story to create suspense - everything that goes into creating a meaningful and entertaining story.
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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
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Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Tue July 12th, 2011, 9:29 pm

It is far easier to learn how to amass and regurgitate information than it is to shape that information in a context that will allure someone other than a student to consume it.

Lets face it, being an entertainer of any sort is extremely difficult and skilled work. Many aspire to create entertainment, be it music, film, story, art, comedy, or whatever. Few reach a level worthy of a broad audience.

V.E.Ulett
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Post by V.E.Ulett » Sun July 17th, 2011, 3:17 am

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

Hear her, hear her!

Great quote from Lord Chesterfield. Here is one from Henry James, "The only duty of a novel was to be well written; that merit included every other of which it was capable."

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marklord
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Post by marklord » Mon July 18th, 2011, 4:49 pm

[quote=""annis""]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?[/quote]

I started reading one of the Alison Weir's non-fiction titles as part of my research for my current novel but I gave up because she drew so many tenuous conclusions about the subject of the biography that I felt I couldn't trust what I was reading. There were just too many assumptions made that is OK and necessary for fiction, but not for a serious historian.

I think a line definitely needs to be drawn. However, as in the case say of War and Peace, sometimes an historical subject needs to be fictionalized by a great novelist for it to find its historical meaning.
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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Joined: August 2008
Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Mon July 18th, 2011, 9:44 pm

[quote=""V.E.Ulett""]

Great quote from Lord Chesterfield. Here is one from Henry James, "The only duty of a novel was to be well written; that merit included every other of which it was capable."[quote]
Thanks! I like the Henry James, too. Although it takes a bit of contemplation before you get the whole of it.

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Manda Scott
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Post by Manda Scott » Mon July 18th, 2011, 9:56 pm

The HWA definitely encourages non-fiction and fiction writers to join - and my reading of Mortimer's piece is that he thinks this is timely and appropriate, particularly given the number of historians who have begun to write fiction.

Several came to speak at our historical festival at the weekend: Harry Sidebottom and Adrian Goldsworthy are two who spring to mind.

I imagine anyone who writes in the Roman era has Goldsworthy's non-fiction books on her/his shelves and Harry Sidebottom had a stellar academic career before making the move to fiction - but both now are selling exceedingly well in their chosen field and both have the capacity to create engaging stories that inspire and entertain before they educate.

As everyone has said - and the point I think Mortimer was making - is that academic historians must strive to demonstrate the source of every point where the role of the fiction writer is to create a universe so real, that the reader is immersed in something where even the gaps feel authentic.

As Adrian Goldsworthy said at one point (and I paraphrase) - the joy and strength of fiction is that we *can* use our imaginations to fill the gaps. And of course, as everyone has said, the point is to entertain, not to deaden.

I'd like to make one other point in this endless debate of fact vs fantasy: I recently read 'Dead Men Risen' by Toby Harnden - a fascinating, well-researched non-fiction book covering the period of the Welsh Guards' tour of Helmand province in 2010.

The author is a respected journalist and was given a great deal of access to official records and was allowed to interview all those who took part in the combat - and yet in his forward, he quotes Rudyard Kipling who made the following remark, referring to the time when he was trying to discover the circumstances of his son's death in battle.

"Men grow doubtful or oversure and in all good faith give directly opposed versions.' - the more he learned, the more difficult it became to establish what really happened because, 'the end of laborious enquiry is too often the opening of fresh confusion'

Kipling had such an astonishing grasp of English - but Harnden is quoting him because he found an identical problem - that men in all honesty would give him diametrically opposing views of what happened at any given time.

It seems to me that if someone with access to living witnesses, emails, cables, records of phone conversations, maps and government documents can't find the truth of what happened 12 months ago, we who delve into the distant past are kidding ourselves if we think we can find the 'truth' of any given event. We can get the broad picture right (Rome invaded Britain, Harold Godwinson lost the battle with William of Normandy, Elizabeth I ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots) - and we can avoid anachronisms. We can place characters in the right place at the right time insofar as we know what these were, we can do our best to place the right weapons in their hands and clothe them in the right armour - but even then, it's only 'right' in the light of what is considered the truth at the time of writing - that, too, changes over time.

I won't go into tedious detail here, but there have been several revisions of what we consider to be 'accurate' in terms of Roman army weapons/armour since I first started writing the Boudica series 12 years ago - but the books are still in print and selling well even though the first book has one or two features that may not concur with current academic thought (and that, too, will evolve into something different over time).

Equally, 10 years from now, the books we are writing now might show their age. But as long as the characters are strong and the narrative grabs a reader and drags her or him into the invented world, then the novels will last long after the textbooks have been rewritten.

manda

[edits for spelling]
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