On historical fiction

Last Tuesday in the Central Library in the Ilac Centre, I took part in a very enjoyable Dublin Festival of History event – “Of guns and drums and wounds” – with Audrey Magee (The Undertaking). Tara Doyle talked to us about historical fiction in general and our own novels in particular.

One question that set me thinking was about historical fiction’s appeal for readers. I’m more used to being asked about where the idea for my own novel (Fallen) came from, rather than why a reader might be drawn to it, but now that the novel is out and about under its own steam it’s safe to think about this intriguing question. Here are some of the (fairly haphazard) ideas that came to me, in no particular order:

  • Being ‘historical’ adds weight to the setting of a story in a particular time and place. So far so obvious, but in fact every novel is set in a time and a place that is other than the time and place in which it’s read, so that distinction is an illusion. When you think about it.
  • Being ‘historical’ might also add a layer of authenticity to the story, but that’s our old friend illusion at work again. That’s not a criticism, by the way. After all, the business of fiction is creating an illusory world and making the reader feel it as real (John Gardner’s ‘vivid, continuous dream’).
  • Thinking about historical fiction in this way ushers setting into the foreground, because a historical story’s setting is about time as much as place. Or, looked at another way, time becomes the equivalent of place – and why not? Is the past not a place in our imaginations? L P Hartley had it right when he said the past is a foreign country, and yes, they do things very differently there.
  • Does moving back through time add to a reader’s sensation of being transported to another world?
  • If we already know something about the period or events in question, reading a novel set there is the literary equivalent of going back to a loved and familiar place on our holidays. We speak the language. We know where to get the best coffee, where they have wifi, how far the water rises at high tide, how to get home in the dark.
  • If we don’t know something about the period, we rely on historical fiction to give us the real low-down. The official brochures can be useful, but they don’t tell you everything.
  • Which leads me to: was it Hilary Mantel who said that history is all the things they try to hide from you? The job of historical fiction is to root around in out of the way places and shine some light into dark corners.
  • Readers (and writers) love stories that bring characters into extreme situations to see how they might act. In fiction about war – which Tara asked us about specifically – the stakes are as high as its possible for stakes to get. It’s about trying to understand the choices humans make. As Audrey Magee said, we all like to think we’d be a Schindler, but there aren’t actually that many Schindlers among us.
  • War stories are still – horribly – all too relevant.
  • Sometimes we’re just plain curious about the past, about where and what we’ve come from and what our ancestors might have been like.

Watch this space:  Soon I’ll be talking to the poet Nessa O’Mahony about history and poetry, and her two most recent collections, the verse novel In Sight of Home and her new collection Her Father’s Daughter.

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3 Responses to On historical fiction

  1. Uni of New Mexico, Albuquerque. Very excited!
    Hilary Mantel always writes so well about the process.

  2. ‘The job of historical fiction is to root around in out of the way places and shine some light into dark corners.’ Love this. I am giving a talk on hist fic in the USA in two weeks and will be quoting you! N x

    • libranwriter says:

      My favourite is the Hilary Mantel quote: history is all the things they try to hide from you. I think her phrasing was more elegant, but I love the meaning anyway! Where will you be talking? Lucky audience! xx

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