In HIDDEN HAMLETS, DANCING TREES, author Terence Jones examines how the tribes of Roman Britain stood up to their invaders. And here on A Writer of History, he shares his thoughts on what makes historical fiction stand out.
What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?
Historical fiction, although fiction, can not stray too far from true facts and events, which to many are like indistinct sign-posts jutting out of a misty past. Those sign-posts must be used and clarified to illustrate their importance. The best historical fiction writers are able to weave a compelling story connecting those sign-posts which then illustrate a complete and colourful picture of the times.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
Undoubtedly yes; historical novels, although fiction, must tell it as it was at the time, whereas contemporary novels usually reach for something other-worldly, strive to illustrate non-existent places where the grass appears to be greener, or the impossible is attainable.
What aspects about the past did you specifically try to highlight in Hidden Hamlets, Dancing Trees?
I have tried to make the reader realise that under the veil of known and recorded facts and events, there were thousands of untold stories and dramas, and each had many facets. More importantly perhaps that the merest hairs-breadth often separated decisions and events which could have changed the whole course of world history.
In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?
Normal research techniques were used, such as authoritative books about Roman Britain backed up by the internet, and where practical and possible visits to various sites and restorations. The characters’ names are for the greater part genuine Celtic or Roman and any dialogue appeared to flow from that, but perhaps the most useful research, strange as it may sound, was imagination. I, as far as possible, put myself in the position of the characters themselves, then imagined just how I would feel in that position, human feelings do not change that much, and in my 82 years I have experienced very many differing situations, dangers and associated emotions.
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
It is necessary to have built up an idea of the geographical layout of the country/site as existed at that time. The political and commercial inter-relationships and tensions and construction and manufacturing techniques.
Do you see any particular trends in HF?
Current Historical fiction is for the most part very good and improving.
Please tell us a little about your latest novel.
I have long believed that the story about the Roman conquest and the occupation have been badly taught. In essence we are almost given the impression that the Romans had every right to be here. We get an occasional glimpse of Boudicca (Boadicea), and a rarer glimpse of Caractacus, but few have heard anything about Tasca and Camorra, or Venutius and his Wife and enemy Cartimandua without interested research. They are all here and seen through the eyes of a young couple who by chance escaped the destruction of their village with its entire population. Today we often see glorified re-enactments of Roman conquests with their glittering armour and polished standards, but rarely are their acts of savagery recounted. We are told of their buildings, temples, forts and white painted villas, and their roads, but not of their cruel subjection of the native population and its enslavement, and the probably less savage way of life they stamped into the ground, or their paranoid fear of the Druids. Our young couple set out to resist the occupation in any way possible and experience many adventures, and travelled far across the land.
I have deliberately avoided magic which unless overtly not serious I believe to be cheating, and every physical feat is possible, very difficult perhaps, but definitely possible.
From a purely personal point of view, I believe that provided it is stressed that it is fiction, it could be a very useful educational tool.
Many thanks for giving us your take on writing historical fiction, Terence. I wish you much success with Hidden Hamlets, Dancing Trees. The publication date for Hidden Hamlets, Dancing Trees is August 27, 2015.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.