Historical Fiction. Do you want to be in our club?
by Gillian Hamer
For the next few months, I shall be dipping my toe into the elite world of Historical Fiction.
My next book, to be released in June under the Triskele banner, is another cross-genre crime novel called Complicit.
As well as a modern day criminal investigation around DS Gareth Parry and the team at Bangor CID, in Complicit we are also transported back two thousand years to one of the most turbulent periods in local history. The ownership of Anglesey (or Mona as it was known then) was one of the most bitter battles faced at the time by the invading Roman army. It took two attempts, plus the building of a huge barracks at Caernarvon (Segontium) to secure the island down to the resilience of local Celt warriors and the mythical stronghold of the Druids. I thought it would be fascinating to bring to life a little of the atmosphere and tension of that time.
I’ve long been fascinated by anything associated with the past, especially the plethora of archaeology, shipwrecks, myths and legends surrounding Anglesey – some of which I’ve managed to squeeze into both of my previous novels.
I thought it would be interesting to put Triskele’s two historical writers, Liza Perrat (Spirit of Lost Angels) and Jane Dixon Smith (author of June’s release, Tristan and Iseult) under the spotlight to discover where their own passions for the genre first developed.
GEH: So, HF has seen a popularity surge in recent years, with Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, but it's still not really trendy, is it? So what is it that attracts you? Jane ... why legends of post Roman Britain? Liza ... what's the attraction of historical France?
JDS: Which genre really is trendy? I think everything has had its day at one point or another. Historical fiction and film was hugely popular following successes like Gladiator, and now the early 1900s are popular with series such as Downton Abbey. Regency Romance has always been popular too, don't forget, and we have Austen to thank for that ... and Colin Firth, of course.
As for me, it was always about the swords and the period costume and different cultural and social expectations and classes which attracted me. Someone once said: 'You would love to live in the past, wouldn't you?' and I said: 'Yes, but for plague and lack of antibiotics.' Post Roman Britain specifically has always had a soft spot for me since I first read Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy, and his very unique but utterly believable take on our legends and history.
LP: History fascinates me, so I love reading about it. I also like contemporary novels, but not as much. I became interested in the history of France from living in a rural French village that was founded by the Romans. Surrounded by such a long history, having it all on the doorstep, drew me into writing about it.
GEH: Location is key for me. Anglesey has such a wealth of history from Neolithic onwards, it’s hard not to get pulled into the stories and legends. And I’ve always been totally fascinated by shipwrecks, as a kid I had piles of books on the Titanic. And I remember on a very early visit to Anglesey going to the church where many victims of the The Royal Charter are buried. It’s those kind of little acorns that grow and grow for me … Do any of you visit real life locations when plotting your books or while writing particular scenes? For me it really helps to stand on a cliff, feel the spray of the waves, and imagine the boat in peril …
LP: Yes, I visit if possible and take lots of photographs, and try and get a feeling for the place. That’s really important to me.
JDS: I wish! With the next book set in Syria I would have loved to have gone and got a real feel for the place, but alas that’s probably not going to happen any time soon. With regards to writing about Britain, yes, I’ve visited many places, and love exploring forgotten times.
GEH: It's said historical fiction is one of the hardest genres to have success in, in terms of agents and publisher interest? And that's despite recent success. Why do you think that is and did that ever have any effect on what genre you chose to write about?
JDS: All genres are having a hard time in terms of securing contracts with agents and publishers. It never had any effect, no. HF was always, always, without doubt going to be the genre I wrote in.
LP: I haven't followed any publishing trends, so it had no effect on my choice of writing in this genre. It was simply that I thought I had found my "voice" in historical fiction, as opposed to contemporary fiction
GEH: I’m only really dipping my toe into HF as part of a crime thriller cross-genre, and I can’t imagine a publisher ever taking on the ‘mongrel’ books I write, so I write what I love.
GEH: Who are your favourite HF authors ... and why? What makes a brilliant HF novel?
JDS: Bernard Cornwell was always my hero. He was not only the first historical fiction writer I loved, but the first fiction writer I read as an adult. I adored his Sharpe series, and then I found his Warlord Chronicles. They will always have a special place for me. HF is such a broad-ranging genre, with so many sub-genres. I love Robert Harris for his political Rome novels, Conn Iggulden for his Emperor series. I'm a massive fan of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and also a new favourite of mine has to be Michelle Moran's novel Cleopatra, which I would recommend to any female reader. There's too many to choose from.
What makes a good historical novel? Story and character as with anything. Good writing, good plot. And of course, to fit the period, you have to have good description of the time and place.
LP: Karen Maitland would have to be my favourite, as she perfectly captures the essence of medieval times. I also love Sarah Waters' books. I think in a brilliant HF novel the reader is completely transported back to that particular time in history.
GEH: Yes, Sarah Waters. And I have to admit I’ve lost myself in a few Phillippa Gregory books too!
GEH: Why do you think HF has such success in cross-media, thinking of film and television adaptations of HF novels?
JDS: Swords. It's always down to swords and epic battles and going back to the days of damsels in distress. Don't we all just love it a little bit?
LP: Because historical events and people make for such dramatic scenes. The historical characters, or events, are probably familiar, to some extent, to viewers, so they relate more readily to the story.
GEH: I think there’s a bit of a sword-obsession going on here, Jane. I don’t think you can attribute the success of Downton Abbey to them, can you? J I agree though on the fantasy element, and also I guess with the success of war stories, people want to relive periods of history they’ve missed.
JDS: Perhaps not Downton, but all the rest ...
GEH: Any future projects in the pipeline you can discuss? Any ideas to move to another time period or place? Thinking of Jane's old motto - if the book you want to read hasn't yet been written, you must write it - what book about what period do you think is begging to be written?
JDS: I'm moving to Roman Syria next. Actually, I'm not moving, I'm already there. I wrote the first novel of a series about four years ago, and the second is well under way. I do love the idea of finding piece of history largely untouched and retelling it, bringing it to life for this generation. There's something very special about that.
LP: The series I'm currently writing takes place over several time periods: the French revolution, the Nazi occupation of WW2, and now, the 14th century plague years. So that has compelled me to research three different periods in French history, and I find it exciting to learn about each different era.
GEH: Both sound fascinating. I’m joining Jane in the Roman period, but on home turf, with the invasion of Mona and the Celt and Druid tribes joining together to oppose them. I found out such a lot about Anglesey in the research, it really makes you look at the places differently.
GEH: And finally, looking at research. How do you handle it? What are your sources? And for me, I find myself filled with dread that someone may read some of my work and pick out a discrepancy and really slaughter me - does that concern either of you ... and if so how do you handle that?
JDS: I'm rubbish at it. I always want to get on with telling the story that research is secondary and I really only do what it absolutely necessary. That said, I have watched an awful lot of kick-ass epic movies in the name of research ...
LP: Yes, that does bother me, that someone will point out an historical blunder. But not too much. I think in most HF novels, there will be some discrepancies, but readers, unless they are eagle-eyed historians, won't generally notice, or be bothered. They just want a good story. That's the most important thing, I believe, to write a BELIEVABLE story, even if it's not entirely factual. Concerning research, I read everything I can get my hands on, about that era, both fiction and non-fiction. Of course I use the Internet, but check the sources as much as possible, as there are always so many discrepancies. I also spend a lot of time at the local historical association, which is full of helpful information and people. I visit sites and memorials and take lots of photos. If possible, I try and talk to people who lived at that time. For example, for my second book in the series, Wolfsangel, I spoke at length with a man who was an active resistance fighter. First-hand knowledge is priceless.
GEH: So, kick-ass movies, sword wielding warriors and heroic resistance fights. I think we’ve probably sold the genre. Long live, historical fiction!
And thanks for sharing your thoughts with me today, ladies!
Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat is available now:
Tristan and Iseult by JD Smith is published June 1st