Writing historical fiction is a strange process. You might suppose (as I did) that it’s a fairly boring task, with no room for inspiration. These people lived and died, their lives are a matter of record, and all there is to do is to recount those lives in so many words and try to be engaging about it.
Here’s the thing: nothing could be farther from the truth
The historical record, mercifully, is full of holes. Human memory is patchy at best, downright deceptive at worst, and skewed every which way by countless biases; and the historical record is largely at the mercy of human memory.
Events may have contemporary eyewitnesses, but they will almost always be writing about them after the fact – who in the fourteenth century went around with a parchment and quill, like a medieval Instgrammer, recording everything that happened around them in the midst of the action?
No-one, is the answer. People wrote letters to each other about things that had just happened, or that happened yesterday, or a week ago, and then, as today, their memory was imperfect and coloured by their opinion of those events.
All of this means that history is ripe for the creative author with an eye for potential.
Fixed Points in Time
There are certain events in history which are more or less immutable. Let’s take the execution of Anne Boleyn, for example. We know for sure that Anne’s execution took place on 19th May 1536, within the grounds of the Tower of London. We know what she wore, and we know what she said. We know who struck the final blow, and what happened to her remains.
No-one could argue against these facts — and yet there is plenty about Anne’s death that remains conjecture. The reason behind it, for one thing. Most agree that it was the will of Henry VIII, but beyond that we start to come up against questions. Was it down to jealousy? Did he believe the reports of Anne’s infidelities? Was it political? Was it due to her failure to provide him with a son? Was the motivation religious? Was he tiring of her evangelical piety?
Historians can provide evidence from the historical record, and argue convincingly for one opinion or another; but already we have moved beyond the realm of fact.
Even looser are the opinions about what Anne did in the days before her death, what exactly she said, or to whom she spoke. Again, there are records — but records by their very nature are concerned with events of note, and will overlook the smaller things said or done: things which are the author’s stock in trade.
Go back further. Trace the route of Anne’s life, her movements between palaces and even countries. The broad strokes are easy to make out, and certain moments jump out vividly, mostly in letters. Look for the minor details, however, and we are forced into generalities and assumptions.
Into the Cracks
Here, the author may pounce. We may know that Anne spent such and such a time in Greenwich Palace then returned to Hampton court, but we may not know what happened along the way. We may know it was not of international concern, because no letters mention it, but we have no way of knowing how this or that event may have impacted her personally.
This is where the author operates: in the cracks that fracture the surface of the historical record. We deal in human emotion and human interaction, and while records such as personal letters contain plenty of these as they pertain to important events, the dearth of day-to-day records on matters such as what activities Anne Boleyn enjoyed on a particular day, or whether she went riding on the second Thursday after Michelmas, are a boon to the historical author.
This is where we build our story, sneaking into the spaces between the important events like a vine spreading over a garden wall. Some things, as I have said, are immutable — Anne will die, and there’s nothing we can do to get away from that — but the immutable parts of history are outnumbered enormously by the rest of it, shifting and changing constantly, and open to wide interpretation.
The important thing, I suppose, is to get the tone right, and to be true to the essential character of these historical figures as far as we can discern it from what they, and others, have said about them.
Aside from that, the blank page lies waiting, just as it does for any other author. And that’s comforting thought.