Greetings and Salutations.
I hope that my Canadian readers had a great Thanksgiving since my last post, we certainly do have many things to give thanks for.
I am, fundamentally, a complexity aficionado. I love baseball, Islay whisky, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, late Renaissance choral polyphony and forcing my students to create essay questions that go beyond “Who won the Battle of Jutland?” The most complicated historical work I’ve ever come across was one by HC Erik Midlefort, and in the introduction he argued that historians cannot seek to simplify history as people in general seek to simplify their own lives. It was a sentiment that I’ve taken to heart and has been at the core of many of the questions I have asked, and the topics that I have studied. I imagine that the conflict between complexity and historical simplicity is, while perhaps not explicitly expressed, also at the creative core for many others because history provides as fertile a field for authors of historical fiction as it does for historians.
To me the key to the writing of a successful novel is the creation of a detailed and complex world for the novel’s characters to inhabit, and interact with. Consider the depth of detail Tolkien provided for Middle-Earth, or the incredible Tom Clancy-esque level of technical, astrographical, exobiological and social details created for the Star Wars universe. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series takes place in a world that is much smaller than either of the previous two mentioned but he provides a place for incredibly complexity in the dynamic nature of the world.
For authors of historical fiction (novels, TV shows, films), the complexity of history is both a gift and a challenge. There is in history amazing stories, characters, and drama enough to satisfy any reader of almost any genre, but of course this also provides challenges that historians who create their own complex worlds don’t necessarily need to address.
First is the matter of historical knowledge, for it’s impossible to write good historical fiction without a thorough understanding of the world that the characters will interact with. These kinds of details include everything from the timeline and chronology of the period, the foods that were eaten, fashions and the appropriate language and idiom. Personally, I find it extremely difficult to write historical drama because I simply cannot craft dialogue that doesn’t sound unnatural however some authors, like the writers of the late and lamented HBO drama Deadwood merely sidestep this issue and use conspicuously modern language. In comparison, the number of websites that point out the less intentionally anachronistic use of language in Downton Abbey is amusing. This type of complexity, and an author’s command of the little details are critical to allowing a reader or viewer to immerse themselves in the world that is created and suspend their disbelief. Even if the tiny details aren’t absolutely correct, just the ability to provide details that seem possible to the reader acknowledges the complex reality of the historical path. The clash here is that in any piece of fiction, it is necessary to provide a sense of narrative motion to propel the reader or viewer through the story. It is necessary for an author to have as much information and complexity available to them as possible to help in the crafting of the narrative but if an author provides too many details (the exposition monster) it can jolt the reader or viewer out of the narrative. It is one thing for George Lucas to mention that that is an Incom T-65 X-Wing, and yet entirely another for Tom Clancy to spend a paragraph discussing the development and procurement history of the Los Angeles Class submarines. One of the best lessons I learned about world creation and complexity was when I started playing Dungeons & Dragons. A friend of mine was a member of the local team that authored scenarios for the Living Greyhawk campaign and his main lesson was when it came to objects, characters and environments that the players would interact with provide only what you want users to use in the game and will steer the players along the desired narrative path. The same lesson applies to authors of historical fiction (although it certainly also applies to academic historical writing as well): Provide details when they add something to the story. CS Forester’s description of the differences between English and French rigging systems in Mr Midshipman Hornblower hinted at the complexity of ship building as it applied to the narrative of a battle between HMS Indefatigable and a French ship without burdening the readers with the technical and mathematical details.
The other main conflict that authors of historical fiction face is the creation of a narrative within the past and the management of historical complexity in the interaction between real events, historical individuals and those that the author creates. If the reason for the narrative being placed in the past is the historical environment then it is entirely possible to create fiction that only requires references to actual history and as a result minimum interaction between the fiction and the fact. For other authors the narrative they seek to create requires a complex combination of the two. For those authors of military historical fiction the need to place the hero or heroes at the centre of events can often lead to a somewhat unsatisfying measure where the historical events that inspire the narrative have to be modified. There are many examples of this conflict between historical complexity and story, and some of the best military historical fiction demonstrates how authors can subtly change the historical details while staying true to the spirit, or nature of events. Consider the Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, where the hero Richard Sharpe improbably has a direct hand on major British military successes and failures for nearly twenty years, on battlefields from India to the Iberian Peninsula and Waterloo. In some cases, such as the siege of Seringapatam in Sharpe’s Tiger, where Sharpe is given personal credit for enabling the fall of the city as well as the death of the Tipu Sultan there is a historical void for the hero to fill. In other cases, such as the capture of a French infantry regiment’s Eagle standard at the Battle of Talavera in Sharpe’s Eagle, Sharpe and Harper replaced the actual heroes, although in history the first Eagle wasn’t captured until 1811. Similarly, in JD Davies Quinton Journals series, particularly the recent The Blast that Tears the Skies the hero character Matthew Quinton’s ship participates in the Battle of Lowestoft. Just like Sharpe and the fictional South Essex Regiment, Quinton and his ship are inserted into well documented events and either have to replace a unit and individuals or be essentially an added asset which can disturb the historical balance if not well managed.
At heart of the creation of historical fiction lies the use of historical complexity to provide an authentic environment for a narrative to unfold, but the purpose of the historical fiction must drive the actual implementation of that narrative. On the one hand, authors who are historians (such as David Davies and Philippa Gregory) can seek to place a story within an environment or period that they know and love and construct convincingly. Education is also a driving force behind the creation of historical fiction, for example leading to Arturo Pérez-Reverte Gutiérrez’s novels about the fictional 17th century Spanish soldier Diego Alatriste. Whether the history or the fiction is the driving factor, authors should rely on historical complexity and details to remain as true to the period as they can without compromising their stories. David Starkey has said that authors of historical fiction should not be taken seriously, or be attributed any kind of historical authority but his approach places all the responsibility on the authors, and little on the readers. It is not the duty of the author of a novel to delineate for a reader what is historical fact, and what has been constructed for narrative purposes.
Historical complexity and details are one of the greatest tools in the arsenal of the author. They provide the basics to construct the world and the means for the characters to interact with the world in a believable manner. They also provide an excellent tool for drawing readers into the study of history. If an author is comfortable assuming a certain level of knowledge amongst their readers, details without accompanying explanation can both maintain the narrative flow but also inspire readers to look up terms, people or events they encounter for the first time. Authors of historical fiction may never possess historical authority but they do have the potential to inspire and that’s just as important.
This blog will continue again in two weeks with another trip into the more serious side of Academic practice. The next entry will discuss the “Making History” series of podcasts which I will be recording over the next several months, and which will be released on this website.