Historical fiction has a lot to live up to – namely, making sure it corresponds with the way you personally view history. If you study a period as an academic, you get a ‘feel’ for the way history should be written, you relate to your characters and imagine them being a certain way. When historical fiction authors get their greasy paws on them, this can all go hideously wrong. And not just academic history, the repeating of outdated and outmoded historical facts can also cause the same problem. Many don’t realise that academic historical fiction evolves every generation or so, and prevailing thoughts and ideas get changed.
As a writer and reader I experience this problem quite a bit. As I’ve said before, I discovered my love of history by studying the Elizabethan period. Historical fiction, and especially historical romantic history, has flourished since I first studied Elizabeth I, and whilst to start with I found it quite enjoyable, the more and more that’s written, with the need for the author to get a different ‘edge’ I’ve found myself falling out of love with a lot of my favourite authors and now I actually physically groan every time I see a new title about the Elizabethan Court (and it’s not just historical fiction that has me groaning – historical non-fiction does as well). Neither is it just Elizabeth, but actually many of the Tudors and sometimes its because it’s many different authors rehashing the same story about the same characters. There are so many fascinating people during the Tudor age that I feel someone should get a look in sometimes.
Now, this isn’t necessarily the author’s fault. I have a real feel for who Elizabeth I was, and the older I get, the more I can relate to her and her inability to make a decision which drove men such as Cecil and Leicester to distraction. If an author goes against my ‘gut’ feelings, I simply can’t read their books. It doesn’t mean their stories are no good, just that they’re not quite my cup of tea anymore.
I think that fantasy is far more freeing when I write. No one can tell me what happens on Unison because, hey, I made it up in my head and I can do what I want with my characters provided it’s ‘believable’ in the fictitious world I’ve created (even if it is based on Viking Age Iceland).
Authors write for a purpose and it might be for the thrill of it, or it might be to educate, or it might just be because they’ve got an agenda in mind. I write historical fiction because I want the people from the Anglo-Saxon period to be seen as men and women who could as easily live today as they did then. I want them to seem personable and realistic and not stereotyped. I want people to stop thinking all Vikings had helmets with horns and did nothing but scream blue murder all their lives. Times might have been bloody, but as I’ve mentioned before, Anglo-Saxon England wasn’t the Middle Ages. The men and women were intelligent and didn’t live in squalor. Women were valued (because the Church hadn’t yet relegated them to mens playthings) but it was a time of strong men, Kings and Warriors, priests and archbishops and they are the people who shine through the sources available to us.
The governance was strong, the economy rich and sophisticated (why else did the Vikings want to conquer England?), the King’s ruled with the help of their ealdormen and reeves, archbishops and bishops and women held their own power, in their nunneries or within the King’s Witan or their own households.
The idea that the Anglo-Saxons lived in squalid little wooden huts, in the ruins of the mighty Roman Empire, has long been disproved. The Grubenhaus was for storage, with a raised wooden floor, not so the people could live with the rats and the mud. The land was good and harvested well, the people grew hedges (many of which can be dated to very ancient times) and wicker fences demarcated land.
The Anglo-Saxons were people like you and me, with a horse instead of a car, and a stout wooden hall instead of a brick built house, and yes, they might not have had potatoes but hey, there are meals that can be cooked without the good old tatie!
That said, my vision of Anglo-Saxon England will still grate and cause offence. I’d apologise but, I’m writing fiction interspersed with as many facts as possible. That’s a lot more than some people write!
So please, enjoy my writing but know that it is my writing!
One thought on “When historical fiction doesn’t portray a time period the way you think it should!”
I’m finding it interesting/challenging to write from the 1870 perspective of what they thought of their history and each other. It’s fascinating, but i am ever aware that there are minefields all about.