Ecod, methinks Master Edward hath right verily strucken a hand-wrought nail upon its noddle…
Having enjoyed Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, Ed wondered in his 8th November post how much research a historical novelist needs, and whether they should strive to use exact language and idiom. Or just wing it.
When I began my current book, set in C18 London, I spent long hours studying contemporary novelists, together with the entertaining and informative Diaries of Parson James Woodforde. I subsequently foreswore contractions, larded my first draft with the phrases and expressions of the time, and made my humble characters respectful and the educated ones God-fearing, with behaviour that was (outwardly, at least) formal. Jane Austen‘s fiction, after all, portrays an era when men and women would agree to marry before they were even on first name terms.
However, although what I’d written was comprehensible, it reminded me of having to listen to Chaucer being read out at school. It wasn’t remotely like the page-turning spiral of darker and darker mysteries that I wanted to unleash on unsuspecting agents.
I set my sights lower. After all, however much research you do, some clever clogs will spot errors. In the entertaining Upstart Crow, Shakespeare‘s dad complained that the pastry of his pie was hard and inedible. When visiting the kitchens of Hampton Court recently, I was told the delicious-looking pies on display weren’t what they seemed. They were flour and water shells, designed to cook and tenderise meat. After being broken open, they were thrown away. Did Ben Elton realise this? Does it matter? I suspicion (thought I’d throw in some archaic language) that the destitute of the day would have been glad to gnaw on them. After all, didn’t Sir John Franklin eat his own boots when starving in the Arctic in the C19?
As my husband reminds me, a historical novel is a work of fiction. I clearly shouldn’t have suffragettes throwing themselves in front of George III’s coach, or adventurers sailing to New York in a week. But, as long as the things I write could possibly have happened, my fingers are crossed. Sufficient facts important to my plot are true. I have British Library references to prove it.
Top flight historical novelists like Hilary Mantel do, of course, adopt a scholarly approach, but lesser mortals like myself can hopefully settle for something more modest.
(Anyone attempting this genre could do no better than invest in Bloomsbury‘s Writing Historical Fiction, by Celia Brayfield and Duncan Sprott)