Monday, 25 November 2013

Are you a novellist or historian?

Here’s a piece of advice I was given long ago about writing historical novels. It’s helped me when constructing story-lines.

A novelist is not in the business of writing academic histories.

The job of the novelist is to entertain readers by creating a tale that will make them want to read on. That may mean taking sides where conflict exists. In almost every aspect of history there are two sides to the story. The academic non-fiction writer should take cognisance of both. Not so the novelist. Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington both had their good points and their bad points, but when you read the Sharpe novels you know exactly whose side Bernard Cornwell was on. He gives the French no leeway and ensures Richard Sharpe always ends up on the winning side with Wellington.

In my latest historical novel, The Poisoned Cup, my key character has to take one side in the thirteenth century Anglo-Scottish wars. The writers of the Braveheart film took the pro-Wallace side, based upon the tales of a medieval storyteller called Blind Harry. He was a minstrel who lived long after the events. The story-line made an exciting and colourful film, but it was one that did not even begin to stand up to serious scrutiny. That was the writers’ choice and their prerogative.
I’ve chosen to follow the opposite side of the story, based upon the contemporary chronicles of educated monks who almost certainly spoke with men who took part in the major battles. It’s fiction, but based upon more reliable evidence than the Blind Harry stories.

I believe that my novel is more credible than the film and I shall await the reviews with interest. Almost certainly, there will be readers who will dislike a viewpoint that contrasts strongly with the film, but that’s the viewpoint I chose to follow. And that’s my prerogative. My key character, Sir Henry de Grenville, rides into battle against Wallace, not with him.

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