Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Historical Novelist's Choices

My research into the Fourth Crusade has been going very well (and so it should be - I've been reading nothing else since mid-September).  Knowing a lot of facts about the Crusade doesn't get you very far as a writer, though.  It's like buying a pet sheep and expecting to get a jumper out of it.  You have the raw material but you need a lot of skill and labour to turn it into the end-product.

After the critical "when and where?" question has been addressed, the writer of historical fiction has at least two other critical decisions to make.  These are the proportion of genuine historical characters in your story (the peerless HBO series Rome adroitly mixed the giants of the late Roman republic with fictional characters), and the balance between character and action (which we can also think of as the extent to which the drama is internal or external).  I've plotted a few historical novelists on the graph below to suggest where their work falls against both of those criteria:

A writer at the top left, like Bernard Cornwell, writes mainly action-centred stories built around fictional characters.  Depth of characterisation will be sacrificed for pace and excitement, and appearances from characters from history will be rare.  At the other extreme, Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian is a largely interior drama imaginatively recreating the psyche of a genuine historical character.  Closer to the middle we have writers like Dorothy Dunnett or CJ Sansom, who in their different ways interweave historical and fictional characters while balancing character and action.

There isn't one right way to do this, and the reader's enjoyment will be conditioned by the author's execution and personal taste.  I myself found Memoirs of Hadrian one of the most boring novels I've ever read, but I love the work of Allan Massie, which sits very close to it on my quadrant.

These are choices I still need to make for Sons of the Devil.  My thinking at the moment is somewhere round about Robert Graves or Sharon Penman on the graph.  Once that's sorted, I'll need to consider some more plot-specific questions: the identity of my protagonist(s), starting point of the story, narrative tone.  But for now, those things can wait.  Instead, I must continue my journey through Charles M. Brand's compelling Byzantium Confronts the West, which explains in convincing detail just why Constantinople was ready to fall to a group of quarelling opportunists in 1204...

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