Some time ago, I found a transcript of a BBC Radio lecture featuring author Hilary Mantel. Mantel is a celebrated author whose novels about Thomas Cromwell have won all sorts of praise and prizes. Mantel seeks to bring the past to life through her writing. In the lecture she speaks of the practical job of resurrecting the past, and the process that gets historical fiction on to the page.
Bits that stood out for me:
“The task of historical fiction is to take the past out of the archive and relocate it in a body.”
The historical novel requires an extra set of choices from contemporary novel writing: “what sources to consult, what shape to cut from the big picture, what to do when the evidence is missing or ambiguous or plain contradictory. Most of these choices are invisible to the read.”
In the early stages of conducting research for a historical novel: “Your job at this stage is to stare hard at the pattern already picked out [by historians and biographers], and see if it shifts under your scrutiny.”
“But your real job as a novelist, is not to be an inferior sort of historian, but to create the texture of lived experience: to activate the senses, and to deepen the reader’s engagement through feeling.”
Mantel states that “exposition is the trickiest bit of the trade.” She continues: “Authors are always advised, ‘Show don’t tell,’ but sometimes dialogue just won’t stretch to cover your points, and you must lay down the facts in a passage of narrative – quick as you can, tailored and succinct – remembering to privilege what matters to your characters, not just what has proven in hindsight to be important.”
You may “have to decide, at some point, between competing evils – too much or too little information – the reader spoon-fed, or the reader needing more. I’d prefer to leave the reader hungry. Your book can’t do it all. If the reader is puzzled, there are other sources he can consult. But if you underestimate your reader’s intelligence, he will put your novel down. You cannot give a complete account … you are looking for the one detail that lights up the page.”
Authors must choose which scenes to include or exclude from history. “An event you choose to tell may not be dramatic in itself .. But when two people are talking in a room, they have a hinterland, and you must suggest it. To that one moment, you bring a sense of every moment that led us there, everything that has brought your woman to this hour, this room, this desk. The multitude of life choices. The motives, conscious or unconscious. The wishes, dreams, and desires, all held invisibly within the body whose actions you describe. They hover over the text like guardian angels.”
“It’s the novelist’s job to put the reader in the moment, even if the moment is 500 years ago.”
“When I talk about humanizing the past, I’m not talking about making them better than they were or softening the truth. There are harsh, cruel realities that we have to face when we write about the past, but I have to say that when I’m writing, I’m not there to pass judgment on my characters.”
A few years ago, I was able to interview Hilary Mantel for the blog. You can find that interview here.
Have you read Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies? Mantel’s third novel about Thomas Cromwell – The Mirror and the Light – won’t be out until 2020. She describes it as “the greatest challenge of my writing life.”
FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. 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.