A few weeks ago, Olly Wyatt connected with me after reading a post about the historical fiction survey. Olly has written a book called THE DEMOCRAT. In this guest post he talks about his philosophy for writing historical fiction.
Historical fiction is about waving goodbye to the present, immersing yourself in another time and fulfilling that desire to go beyond the years of your own life. Ignoring your own values is as important an attribute in historical writing as discovering those of other eras. Once we have done this, historical fiction demands that we ask questions about what existed at a particular time. Political, moral and social values specific to the era you’ve decided to write within, are as important considerations as being accurate about facts like the use or absence of electricity, steam power or the combustion engine. Read any diary and you’ll soon sense the way people thought, what they were averse to, what they desired and the thinking behind that distinction.
Writing The Democrat, set in the 1790s, I had to ignore everything that came after that date. You couldn’t allow, for example, the Marxist thinking of the 19th century or the calamities of the 20th century to colour your thoughts. The world of the 1790s was the world of Thomas Paine and the promotion of republicanism, the world of Burke and arguments for conservatism, the world of Adam Smith and the defence of individualism. In many ways the book is about a collision of these outlooks and at its centre is a person who has to decide what beliefs he is going to act upon to represent the ordinary people as effectively as possible.
We historical fiction writers also have to be careful about imposing an assumption that the course of history has always been progressing towards freedom. History books have a habit of insisting that this is an inevitability. The Democrat is about a time when people are looking back at the Glorious Revolution, a century earlier in 1688, when the relationship between the governed and the governing appeared to be moving into a golden age. That it didn’t and that freedoms regressed from 1690 to 1790 see our characters trying to establish rights to which they believe they were entitled that had alluded them.
At the heart of historical fiction is an understanding for what your characters have suffered and an admiration for how they attempted to solve the problems thrown at them. Thomas Carlyle said the writing of a life should be, above all, an act of sympathy. This sympathy can be imagined as in pure fiction or found through research as in biographically based historical fiction. In addition, I believe we must also be ready to understand the things our characters do that we cannot sympathise with and at least explain why they had to do something we might not agree with. For me it is about understanding someone as well as having sympathy for them.
Thomas Muir, the subject of The Democrat, was an incredibly articulate lawyer who ended up defending himself against the dubious charge of sedition brought against him by a politically motivated judiciary after he’d tried to extend the rights of ordinary people. Within weeks the trial brought against him was considered illegal. The establishment, however, was unwilling to listen because they valued his exile more highly than reforming society. But this is just the beginning because Muir doesn’t give up easily. Instead he embarks upon a perilous ocean odyssey pursued by the British government, its navy and its allies, in his attempt to cross the Pacific to eventually return to Scotland.
My own often perilous journey through piles of research began in Edinburgh’s Rare Books Library making notes on hundreds of documents from the 1790s. I then had the challenge of telling Thomas Muir’s story as powerfully as I possibly could whilst being as true as possible to what I perceived to be the relevant historical facts.
Whilst I believe that we must be authentic to the values and thinking of the time we choose to write within, our writing can still resonate with our own day. As I wrote The Democrat, Arab protests for democracy were gathering pace in North Africa and the Middle East. A year earlier in the United Kingdom, we had had the parliamentary expenses scandal. People were disillusioned with their politicians. With demands for democracy being made in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain as well as much needed reform to the UK’s democratic infrastructure under way, there seemed to be no better time to tell Muir’s story and in so doing, sketch out a historical novel that was relevant to our own times as well as being true to Thomas Muir’s.
Thank you, Olly, for your very thoughtful words on writing historical fiction. You highlight central dilemmas of authenticity that go beyond historical fact to the more nuanced aspects of respecting the times we write about.
Olly Wyatt’s debut novel, The Democrat, is a finalist in the 2012 Global Ebook Awards.
The ebook and paperback are available from www.thedemocratbook.com.