Authentic Headless Women

I spent last weekend at the Historical Novel Society conference in London. This was a marvellous, invigorating occasion, with lots of great networking; it was particularly good to meet my fellow panellists in the ‘Ships Ahoy’ forum on nautical fiction, namely Linda Collison, Helen Hollick, Margaret Muir and Rick Spilman. The fact that the majority of speakers – and attendees – were women speaks volumes for the extent to which the genre has been transformed in recent years. Our five mini-talks covered a variety of issues; mine was on the vexed question of accuracy (see below) and about the need to show respect in one’s writing for the sea and those who sailed on it, a theme that others echoed. We received some stimulating questions, notably of the ‘where do I find information about…’ variety, and also had plenty of opportunity to bounce ideas around among ourselves. In a way, though, we thought that nautical historical fiction was a little bit on the margins of the conference; but then, pretty much everybody who isn’t writing about the Romans or the Tudors was saying pretty much exactly the same thing.

(Rick filmed the session; I hope to be able to provide a link on this blog and my website in the near future.)

I don’t propose to go through who said what in each session. Instead, I thought I’d highlight just one or two of the main themes that emerged, and perhaps the biggest of them was the perennial debate about accuracy and authenticity in writing historical fiction. In a nutshell – to what extent should a historical novelist aim for accuracy? Is it possible not to be entirely accurate but to remain ‘authentic’ to a period? Can accuracy and authenticity actually be counter-productive if taken too far, and besides, how do we define them? After all, Wolf Hall has been praised to the heights for its ‘authenticity’ – but a generation is now growing up that thinks Thomas Cromwell was a nice guy. I liked Ian Mortimer’s concept called ‘Celia Brayfield’s Barbed Wire': she was reviewing a Catherine Cookson book in which the principal characters had to negotiate a barbed wire fence in 1896, couldn’t believe it was in use at the time, and by the time she’d checked and found that it was, the spell had been broken. As Ian says, ‘in historical fiction, accuracy and authenticity are not necessarily desirable’. Several of the speakers also adopted this line, which agrees with my own thinking, namely that altering facts to fit a narrative is fine; after all, in Gentleman Captain I moved the date of Easter 1662  and wasn’t subsequently inundated by protest letters from outraged theologians and chronologists. (As I said in my talk, though, I draw the line at altering the sequence of events during real battles, although obviously I’ll insert Matthew Quinton and a fictional ship in place of a real one; those who fought, suffered and died in those battles deserve that respect.) As several panellists said, historians can be sniffy about historical novelists’ willingness to change things around, but as a historian myself, I think this ‘holier than thou’ attitude rests on very weak foundations. Historians interpret the past and ‘change things’ by deciding to include or omit particular facts from their accounts; the idea that they are objective, detached analysts of the past is frankly risible, as historians usually have their own personal or political agendas. If anything, historical novelists are simply much more up front about what they do: as Emma Darwin put it, ‘We make things up. Get over it’.

There was also much discussion of the stunning lack of imagination in cover designs for historical fiction. This can be summed up pretty succinctly: if it’s for a male audience, stick a sword on it; if it’s for a female audience, give it a headless woman in a nice dress. Now I don’t know a lot about art, and I know even less about marketing, but it seems to me that the acronym ‘USP’ is rendered pretty meaningless if every book ends up looking pretty much the same as every other one. (I’m just glad that my own publishers have been much more imaginative with the covers of the Quinton series, which has always been intended for both male and female readers.) Having said that, I suppose nautical fiction falls into the same trap to some extent. After all, when was the last time you saw a naval historical novel without a ship on the cover?

Anyway, the net effect of my attendance at the conference is that I’m now brimming with ideas for future books galore: I particularly like the potential of a plot that involves teenage wizards battling teenage vampires before engaging in torrid bondage sex with the gladiators who guard the Holy Grail. Before I move on to develop that, though, I need to start the detailed plot construction for ‘Quinton 5′, provisionally titled The Battle of All the Ages and based around the remarkable Four Days’ Battle of 1666. This means that next week, I’ll be going through my usual process at the outset of a new book, namely locking myself away in a cottage for a week so that I don’t drive Wendy nuts as I bounce ideas (and, possibly, myself) off the walls. So I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to blog next Monday – much will depend on whether or not I have a mobile broadband signal, on whether I have any time to spare from ‘blue skies thinking’ if I do, and on whether or not my brain will have been fried by spending too much time in May and June 1666. In case I don’t make it, though, you can find another helping of me on the wonderful Hoyden and Firebrands blog, where I’m this week’s guest blogger!

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