HOW DO YOU BEGIN — and more importantly, when do you stop?
Lucille Turner, author of The Sultan, The Vampyr and the Soothsayer, offers her thoughts on the hows and whys of researching for historical fiction. Lucille has been on the blog before talking about the Mona Lisa and the fall of Constantinople. Over to you, Lucille.
For a writer of historical fiction, it can be hard to know when to put down the research and pick up the pen. Do you read absolutely everything you can lay your hands on about your historical period, to the point that there is no stone left unturned — or can you do too much research, so that you end up with a stack of facts but no actual story? I would say you can; I would even venture to add that if at some point you don’t turn away from those fascinating facts, they will swallow you whole along with your story (or what you thought you had of one) because the real substance of historical fiction lies in between the lines, not on them; it lies with what drives history rather than what dates it: people.
In historical fiction, character is everything. It is character that helps a writer understand events and interpret them, simply because every historical event, with the exception of natural disasters, is man-made. History is a consequence of human nature, and it is individuals that make history happen. Even if there may be an entire social and geographical context to a battle or a war, it often takes just one individual to set the flame to the tinder, one act to set history in motion. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked World War I, even if the seeds for conflict had already been sown. Hilter was uniquely able to tap into public opinion and gain the unconditional support he needed to enter into conflict with the rest of Europe two decades later. These are examples of major historical upheavals, but the same applies to the smaller ones. There is always one individual who tips the apple cart, opens up Pandora’s box and sets off a chain of events that will define the lives of hundreds of people for years to come. Conversely, there are also individuals who have had a positive, rather than a negative effect on the course of history. Think of Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, and politicians such as Gorbachev, who ended Communism and made the world a safer place, if only for a while. Those who claim that one person, man or woman, cannot change the world are patently wrong. History tells us that much.
In researching an idea for an historical novel, there are known facts you can’t change, such as dates, battles, outcomes etc. And if you are using real historical figures in your novel, there are certain things there too that you cannot alter, such as what they did, and how they were perceived as individuals by those around them. But that doesn’t mean it’s an open and shut case. On the contrary, the case is wide open and always will be, because history never tells the absolute truth. It can’t, because the facts are never enough. They have to be interpreted to be understood, and particularly at the level of the individual. This is where the writer of historical fiction makes a mark, delivering story through history.
What history tells us about the individuals that made it may often be read in biographies, many of them excellent. An historical fiction writer will always read a biography if there is one available to them. Sometimes, if the historical figure lived too long ago, there may be very little in the way of written records. Go even further back in time and all you might have is archaeology. But even if biographies do exist, the role of the historical fiction writer is not the same as the role of the biographer or the historian. A writer of historical fiction aims to bring the historical figure back to life as a living, breathing person. The historian or biographer usually aims to place the individual in the context of their time, not necessarily in the context of their skin. What was going on in the head of a particular individual in a particular context of time or moment of history is mostly about detective work. Sometimes even guesswork. The historical fiction writer must be a bit of a detective.
In my own historical novel, The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer, Vlad Dracula’s father (Dracula and his family were all real historical figures) puts his sons’ lives at risk in a political game of cat and mouse with the Ottoman Sultan Murad II. At first sight, it seems like a case of paternal negligence or even betrayal, but what it represents is the meat of characterisation. Look into the depths of such actions and you find conflict at the heart of it. Use that conflict to build your character and you have a flesh and bone person, complete with dilemmas, motivations and baggage.
There are other examples of character building in historical fiction, which are geographically closer to home for a British writer. Thomas Cromwell for instance, has provided Hilary Mantel and others with a golden opportunity to re-create a fictional character of great complexity, a man who bends himself to the will of notorious English monarch King Henry VIII only to find himself betrayed in turn by the king he served so devotedly. The beauty of characters like Cromwell, is that the complexity is almost a given. The contradictions of Cromwell’s own life provide it in abundance. As the king’s henchman, Cromwell was renown for his cruelty. Mantel presents him as a man hardened by an early life of struggle. Cromwell the boy became Cromwell the killer because he was a survivor. His father beat him as a child. To escape his father he went to war young. To survive he had to be resourceful, ruthless, and these were the characteristics that made him so indispensable to the king. Why then, did he end up on Tower Hill with a blade to his throat? To find that out, the writer would have to look more closely at the character of the one who sent him to the block, King Henry. And so it goes on. There is a good deal of detective work involved, and inevitably a certain amount of guesswork, but once the characters start to move, almost of their own accord, towards the destiny that history has assigned them, you know you’re on the right track.
Many thanks as always, Lucille. And best wishes for your latest novel!
The Sultan, the Vampyr and the Soothsayer – 1442: The Ottoman Turks are advancing through the Balkans with Vienna in their sights and Constantinople, the Orthodox Greek capital, within their grasp. Dracul, ruler of Wallachia (present-day Romania), will pay almost any price to save his country, but he will not surrender to the blackmail of the cardinals of Rome; he will not betray the Greeks.
When Vlad, his middle son, begins to show signs of the ancestral sickness, Dracul vows to deliver him into safety. But time is running short. To some, Vlad Dracula is a strigoi, the worst of all evils; to others, he is the son of a righteous man. Confrontational, charismatic and manipulative, he tests family and enemy alike. Surely he is destined for power, but of what kind?
As the Ottomans plot to take Constantinople, the future of Vlad Dracula becomes a weapon for those who would preserve the Golden City of the Eastern Church. The Catholics are afraid of him; the Greeks hold the scrolls that tell of his past. And when the Sultan calls for the services of a soothsayer, even the shrewd teller of fortunes is unprepared for what he learns.
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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, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.