History will be kind to me because I intend to write it,
said Winston Churchill… and write it he did. Authors of historical fiction usually go about “writing history” with more modest ambitions – or do they? Just look at Walter Scott or Charles Dickens… And I know Dickens was no historical novelist, properly speaking, but there is no denying that A Tale of Two Cities did much to shape the common perception of the French Revolution…
So perhaps this is it: we do not so much write history as tell it – and in telling it, we can shape the way it will be understood and perceived.
When Kipling said that if history were told in the form of stories it would never be forgotten, perhaps he did not mean that stories should take over the job of telling history. Perhaps he was stressing the responsibility that goes with the job of telling history in the form of stories…
Just think of Sara Crewe telling dull Ermengarde about the French Revolution, and the severed head of the Princesse de Lamballe being carried over the crowd, stuck on a pike… “The princess was young and beautiful…” Sara tells a gaping Ermengarde – who won’t easily forget her history after that. A shame that Mme de Lamballe was 43 when she met her gruesome death – an age that no little girl would call “young”… So Ermengarde will always remember a picturesque fiction. It may not be very important, provided she remembers the French Revolution, but what of Dickens’s rather biased portrayal of the same period?
And yes – stories are not history, and vice versa. It would be most unfair to blame a novelist for “making things up” or “making things more dramatic”, but Ermengarde’s Princesse still raises interesting questions about the fiction and the perception of history.
And History Will Be Kind, The Copperfield Review’s first anthology, provides an interesting exercise in “telling history”. A rich collection of historical short stories, poems and essays, it explores a range of historical periods, characters and events – from Empress Maud to Alexander the Great, from the Third Crusade to 1914 Mexico – and Kit Marlowe, of course. My own very young Kit Marlowe who, in Gentleman in Velvet, learns a hard lesson about consequences and prices to be paid.
On the whole, it is a little history of the world told through story, as well as an exploration of many ways in which “we” tell these stories…
You can find History Will Be Kind in e-book and paperback format here:
All else apart, and seeing the time of the year, wouldn’t it make a nice Christmas present for lovers of history and stories?
Just to show you the gorgeous cover of History Will Be Kind, the first anthology by Copperfield Press.
History Will Be Kind will be released on 17 November – and my story Gentleman in Velvet will be in it.
Oh, news! Great news.
The wonderful Copperfield Review, the award-winning literary journal for writers and readers of historical fiction, is celebrating its fifteenth birthday next October – and will do so, amongst other things, by publishing its first anthology.
Well, I’m enormously proud and happy to announce that my Elizabethan short story, Gentleman in Velvet, will be in the anthology. Fifteen stories were chosen from over three hundred submissions, so I’ll say it again: I’m very proud and honoured that my story was chosen…
Here is a very small preview of Gentleman in Velvet:
I’m in my father’s workshop when the servant brings the velvet. I’m being told off for fighting – for at eight I’m an unruly child. But the arrival of the fabric cuts short the homily, and we – myself and two apprentice boys – flock around the best-lighted, the master’s workbench as my father unfurls the two, three ells of velvet.
It ripples like water – a deep burgundy that turns crimson in the slanting light of afternoon, and black in the heart of its smooth folds. It gives off a clean, warm, rich smell amidst the foulness of pitch and tanned leather. It seems the greatest pity to cut it into a pair of slippers… When I reach out to touch it, it is a rap on the knuckles, and off with me upstairs, in disgrace, for mother and sisters to deal with until supper.
I can’t wait – and I’ll let you know along the way. Meanwhile, imagine me dancing little happy dances…
And it’s not unlikely I’ll adopt it as such.
Incidentally, it goes very well with Kipling’s two books of “history” stories, and his other occasional foray into historical fiction. There are not many – just enough to make me wish he had written more.
Also, this would make a nice answer to the unavoidable question of Why Historical Fiction…
Were you ever asked? And what did you say?
We have all been told countless times how vital it it to write a good beginning. A beginning is no red carpet, no invitation card… A good beginning grabs the reader by the troath, drags them in, and never lets go until they are properly hooked, and in for the duration…
Yes, we’ve heard it all.
How do you do that, though? By setting the scene, the mood, the voice. By showing the right amount of action, by introducing your characters just so – and, when you are writing historical fiction, by establishing the time period as an interesting place to visit.
Marie Savage wrote this interesting article on the subject, as a guest post for The Bookbinder’s Daughter blog. Check it out – and, while you are there, have a look at this very nice book-blog with an eye for great historical fiction.
I confess, I haven’t read Nicola Griffith’s Hild. But I most certainly will, after finding (in Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s blog Work In Progress) this excellent article about the research and thought process that went into crafting the novel’s language.
I greatly admire Ms. Griffith’s vivid depiction of her approach to… not so much recreating period language, as rendering its feel – and its social and psychological implications as well.
So much so that Hild’s time period may not be my favourite, but I just have to read a book written this way.
I’ll let you know.
Through the years, I have published three historical novels – slightly unconventional ones, perhaps, but still. And I’ve had six plays staged, five of which are set at some point in the past.
And at every launch, at every book signing, at every performance, some well-meaning soul turns out with The Question: why don’t I write something contemporary? And the funny thing is, they usually mean it as a compliment.
As though writing historicals were some sort of second best, ‘prentice work I’ll have to outgrow, sooner or later. Oh, what a lovely book/play. You are ready now, dear girl. You can go on to write something serious…
And nine times out of ten, it is perfectly pointless to say that I am writing what I want to write, thank you very much. Or that it’s not that I cannot write present-day – it’s just that I don’t like it all that much.
After all, I write historicals for a reason. Several reasons, actually: the difficult task of really grasping past events, a fascination with the things we don’t know anymore, the way legends, clichés and literature grow layer after layer, the pull of century-old lies, the constant tension between period-ness and interpretation… All of which, you’ll agree, is better explored by writing historical fiction.
So, it seems to me that I know what I am doing – and why I do it – but no. Let it be publicly known that I write historicals, and someone is bound to ask: why, why, oh why, don’t I write something contemporary?
Well, maybe because I don’t care to? Because I don’t feel I have much to say or tell in a contemporary setting? Because I’m better at other things?
And I’m not saying I’ll never do it. Apart from the fact that writers have been known to change their minds, I’m never averse to dabbling with genres outside my own, trying something different. Stepping (cautiously) out of my comfort zone… So, who can tell what the future will hold?
Meanwhile, though, nothing contemporary, thank you – and no sugar.
This is from Karavansara, my friend Davide Mana’s great blog of pulp and historical adventure, with an Asian slant. It’s not for nothing that Davide subtitled the thing “East of Constantinople, West of Shangai.”
While doing research for his wonderful Aculeo and Amunet stories (check them out, if you’ve never read them), he stumbled across some great video resources about ancient weaponry, and collected a few in this post.
When you are writing historical fiction (or historical adventure), you never have enough of this sort of things – because it’s damnably easy to mess up… And of course, a novel is a novel, and not a treatise on ancient hoplology – but it’s so much better if, while providing great characters engaged in interesting action and meaningful stories, you also get your swords right, isn’t it?
- Aculeo & Amunet – the official website (karavansara.wordpress.com)