Game of Hats

Back after a terrific weekend at the Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford. Yes, there were big guns – Melvyn Bragg, Fay Weldon et al – but as always at such events, the information and ideas coming out of the panel sessions were more important, and the networking was more important still. In the latter sense, it was great to meet lots of old friends again, including some from far afield (special nods to Gillian Bagwell and Margaret Muir, the third member of the ‘naval novelists’ splinter group with myself and Antoine Vanner!), and to meet plenty of new ones, too. I won’t launch into a self-indulgent bout of name-checking, but hello and thank you to all! I had the proverbial one job, and that was to chair the panel on the Great Fire of London, which I shared with Chris Humphreys and Andrew Taylor. The three of us had all taken very different approaches to the Fire in our books, and our really receptive and engaged audience asked some thought-provoking questions, for example on the comparisons between this event and other great historical fires, such as the notorious ‘Nero’s fire’ in Rome – and we were fortunate to have Margaret George, author of the hugely successful ‘psycho-biography’ biographies of Nero, Henry VIII et al, in the room with us to contribute to the discussion.

There’s always one dominant theme that seems to emerge out of these conferences, and as far as I was concerned, the theme that came out of this one was that hardy perennial, the relationship between historical fiction and writing ‘proper’ history. As regular readers of this blog know, this is a subject of ongoing interest to me, but it occurred to me that it tied into the recent social media ‘storm in a teacup’ about Rebecca Rideal’s excellent new book, 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire, and the subsequent interview she gave to The Guardian, which seemed to upset a small number of grumpy academic historians. As I was driving back to Oxford, it also occurred to me that these debates could be summarised very nicely by doing a riff on the famous Barker, Corbett and Cleese sketch about class: imagine Cleese’s bowler hatted character as a tenured university academic with a PhD, Barker as a ‘popular’ historian writing for general readers, and the cloth-capped Corbett as a historical novelist. I invite you to make your own reimaginings of the script.

In real life, of course, some historical novelists, and quite a few popular historians, will be making a lot more money than the academic historians – which, one suspects, might have something to do with the slight but still visible green-eyed tinge to some of their grumpiness. One thing that was really striking at the conference, though, was the number of people who are both ‘proper’ historians (yep, PhDs and all) and yet also write historical fiction. In my own case, of course, I’ve worn all three hats in my time, and am currently wearing them simultaneously – novelist promoting latest title, popular historian completing new book for a general audience, and academic historian co-editing a weighty tome for a small audience. So all of this is distinctly tongue-in-cheek, but as I might be one of very few people who can look at it from all three perspectives, I thought I’d try to summarise them in table form.

Apology 1 – as creating tables in WordPress appears to be a task which makes negotiating Brexit look simple, I’ve had to set this up as best I could, so it might not look quite right on all platforms.

Apology 2 – I have good friends in all three of these lines of work, and none of what follows is based on any of you. Honest. (Note: this does not apply if you are Sir Arthur Bryant.)





Purpose: the theory Make as many people as possible interested in your subject; tell an important story; be as true as possible to the past


Make as many people as possible interested in your subject; tell an important story; be as true as possible to the past


Make as many people as possible interested in your subject; tell an important story; be as true as possible to the past


Purpose: the reality 1/ Tick boxes on CV, with institution, government, etc

2/ Because of [1], keep job

Make lots of lovely money Become the new Dan Brown or J K Rowling. Failing that, claim to be ‘following one’s dream’, even if the dream involves pot noodles and buying your clothes at Asda


Previous career Child. Generally speaking – journalist, peer of realm, or spouse of publisher You name it. However, in most cases, ‘previous career’ is also still ‘current career’.


Publisher Pays no advance and minimal royalties, produces book of 200 pages, charges £90 per copy, does almost no marketing. Book never remaindered; secondhand copies become so rare that wars are fought over them Pays an advance and royalties (be still my beating heart), produces book of 200 pages with lots of nice pictures, charges £20 per copy, does lots of marketing. Book still gets remaindered after 6 months, copies in Oxfam for 20p within a year.


A ‘publisher’…please…oh God, please…
Articles Writes articles solely for like-minded colleagues in obscure peer-reviewed journals behind paywalls run by companies (founders: A Capone, V Corleone) which charge £50 to download a PDF of a 15-page article that was published 40 years ago


Prose style ‘What is this term “prose style” of which you speak?’ Short sentences. Colourful adjectives and adverbs. Find as many gruesome or sexy anecdotes as possible and shovel them in on an industrial scale


Whatever a potential publisher wants it to be
References Has vast footnotes name-checking as many other historians as possible, ostensibly because it’s ‘engaging with the debate’, in reality so they’ll give you nice reviews


Has short endnotes to prove that this is a REAL HISTORY BOOK and that I’VE READ MORE STUFF THAN YOU Agonising about whether or not to include a historical note at the end of the book. Will it shatter the illusion for my readers? Oh God, do I have any readers??
Research method Does a lot of research in original sources Does a lot of research in original sources* Does a lot of research in original sources


Writing method Fills in gaps between the sources by using own imagination, but calls process ‘interpretation’ Fills in gaps between the sources by using own imagination, but calls process ‘empathy’


Fills in gaps between the sources by using own imagination, but calls process ‘imagination’

Yes, I know plenty of popular history books that are just potboilers based on other potboilers. But goodness knows how I’d have fitted in a fourth column to cover the rubbish that should never have been penned by any writer of any description, ever. 


A couple of mystery guest posts coming next on this blog – an extra one at the end of this week, which puts a pretty remarkable historical ‘find’ online for the first time ever, and a really special and important one next week, which will be of particular interest to my Welsh followers. Watch this space!

And finally, a late correction – it now seems that I had good friends in all three lines of work…



  1. Thanks for this, JD. Great fun – as was being on the panel with you, chaired impeccably.


  2. Thank you for the smile! As Managing Editor for Indie Reviews I have rejected three ‘novels’ written by academics because, well I can’t put this tactfully, because they were so dreary and dull. As a history lecture they were fine, as a novel – nope, thumbs down. For all three rejects I received rude and abusive replies from the authors with the inclusion of ‘I am a historian, I know what I am talking about.’ Yes, they were historians, yes they knew what they were talking about but they were not novelists. Writing a good, readable historical novel takes a lot of skill.
    Oh and (jumps up and down with hand in the air to get noticed) I’m a nautical novelist as well – and I was there at the conference LOL 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rob Kirk says:

    This is just as funny in Italy as it would be at home.


  4. Geoff Boxell says:

    Totally brilliant and totally true.I have worn the last two hats and at one time wore the first, but hated it.


  5. jsmjf2 says:

    Truly excellent. And I totally agree.


  6. Tells it exactly like it is!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. As a rank amateur, I enjoyed it too – and thanks for the laughs as well. I’d be tempted to add yet another column – for history-ish novelists who probably read lots of books or watch The Tudors on the telly but don’t really worry too much about avoiding anachronisms. But that would just be pedantic and grumpy of me.


  8. Douglas McElvogue says:

    Hi David

    Just read your blog. Always thought provoking. Wondered if you still wished to meet up in London? Might be up there next week. Off Harley Street.



  9. Frank Fox says:

    As one who is most definitely not a “proper historian” but who still likes to write something that’s sort of like history, I enjoyed the post.


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