James Wilson is the author of four historical novels and a work of historical non-fiction. He has recently written a fifth novel, The Summer of Broken Stories, which is set at a time when he was a boy. Today, James offers an interesting perspective on writing historical fiction.
MKT: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? And in your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?
JW: Hm. That’s a huge question, and it’s hard to give a short answer – but I’ll do my best!
The organizers of the Walter Scott Prize define a historical novel as one that is set at least sixty years before the time in which it’s written. This obviously covers a huge range of work, from Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities or George Eliot’s Romola to The Da Vinci Code. So at one end of the spectrum you have books whose historical settings have been chosen for a serious literary purpose, and, at the other, pure escapism, which treats the past merely as a more or less exotic tourist destination. They’re not really the same kind of thing at all.
There’s nothing wrong with escapism, but I have to say it doesn’t interest me very much. Every historical novel is, of course, a product of the period in which it’s written; but its value, for me, lies to a great extent in how truthfully it manages to recreate the past – and what it tells us about that past. And that, in turn, depends partly on how well the author manages the language. A lot of historical fiction is written in more or less contemporary English, with just a few quaint pieces of vocabulary hung on it like Christmas tree baubles, to signal to readers which century they’re in. But language isn’t just a lot of individual words: it’s the way we organize and make sense of reality. And unless an author understands that, and can show it at work in the world about which s/he is writing, we’ll only ever experience that world through modern eyes.
Two examples – one old, one new – of books that I think get it right. The first is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, published in 1886, but set more than a century before in the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. It takes the form of an adventure story – and a very exciting one, too. But it also – through the sharply contrasting characters of the dour lowland narrator, David Balfour, and his flamboyant highland companion, Alan Breck Stewart – deftly dramatizes the struggle for the national identity – the soul – of Scotland, at the precise moment when the issue was (supposedly) being decided once and for all. And that – as the recent independence referendum shows – is something that still resonates with us today.
Example two, published only last year, is Joanne Limburg’s A Want of Kindness, about the early years of Queen Anne. The author’s mastery of language and human sympathy rescue the queen-to-be from the tyranny of hindsight, and allow us to experience the dramas and tragedies of her life as though we were there with her.
Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?
As I’ve already suggested, there is a tremendous variety of historical novels, ranging from literary and formally experimental to cliché-ridden potboilers – and the same is true, of course, of contemporary fiction. It seems to me there is only one truly inherent difference: a historical novel always transports the reader to an unfamiliar place. Some contemporary fiction does the same – but a lot follows the pattern established by Jane Austen, in which the fictional world is, to all intents and purposes, exactly like ours.
What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?
This is a difficult question to answer. I always feel that the past has something to say to us – about where we come from, and hence who we are. So I try – without simply projecting back from my own time – to hear what that something might be, and to give it voice. So The Bastard Boy, for instance, set on the eve of the American Revolution, is in one sense (like Kidnapped) an adventure story – but it’s also a book about the birth of the modern world, and the assumptions that still govern our lives today.
You’ve written novels set in different periods, how have the challenges of bringing those periods to life differed?
To me, the crucial pre-requisite for writing anything is to have a voice. I can see the historical landscape in front of me, but I can’t enter it until I have vehicle capable of carrying me across even the roughest terrain, and allowing me to experience it – as far as possible – as a contemporary person would. So to begin with I read, read, read – immersing myself in the world, and hearing the people of the time talking to me in my head. But that is, of course, harder for some books than for others. In some ways, it was easiest for The Bastard Boy, because the English of the period is so distinctive that – once you’ve learned it – it actually helps you to see the world through eighteenth century eyes. The most difficult challenge was The Woman in the Picture – most of which is set between the wars – because the language of the time is generally so bloodless and insipid. How do you write something that’s true to that sensibility, and yet vivid enough to engage a reader?
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?
As I’ve said, I begin by developing a voice, which means reading contemporary letters, diaries, memoirs, journalism and (sometimes) fiction. When I’m fairly confident about that, I move on to etiquette books, guidebooks, cookery books, train timetables, and pretty much anything else I can get my hands on. I do occasionally use secondary material – e.g., a history of costume – but I prefer going back to primary sources. I have to admit, though, that I am probably a bit over-obsessive: I can spend hours establishing that George Washington was actually at Mount Vernon on the day my narrator visits him there, or finding out when exactly a character needed to get to the station to catch a train to Gipsy Hill!
What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?
Whatever is required to make it truthful and fully alive for its characters, and allow the reader to share their experience.
You’ve recently written The Summer of Broken Stories, not strictly speaking a historical novel. What differences have you noted in bringing the world of this novel to life compared with your other novels.
The Summer of Broken Stories is a bit of an oddity, because it’s set right on the cusp between the vanished world of historical fiction and my own just-still-alive memory. Some aspects – smells; sounds; above all feelings – I could summon back from my own early life. But – slightly to my surprise – I found I still had to read (or re-read) extensively, just as I did with the other books, in order to get the exact cadences of the way people spoke. And some things – like the cost of a pound of butter, or when the Milky Bar was first introduced – required the same kind of research as the earlier novels.
Please tell us a little about The Summer of Broken Stories.
The Summer of Broken Stories is set in an English village at the end of the 1950s. It’s narrated from the point of view of ten-year-old Mark, who – while he’s out with his dog one day – finds a strange man called Aubrey Hillyard living in a disused railway carriage in the woods. Hillyard is writing a science fiction novel about a sinister entity called The Brain, and does a deal with the boy: he’ll tell Mark about The Brain, if Mark will tell him stories about the fictional world of his model railway, Peveril on the Swift. This seemingly innocent encounter ultimately changes the whole course of Mark’s life.
Many thanks for adding your insights, James. The focus on voice is of particular interest to me and I know others will find your answers fascinating. James can be reached at his website or on Twitter at @jcwilsonauthor .
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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 will be 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.