Writing History, Writing Fiction

Writing History, Writing Fiction

Investigating the boundary between history and historical fiction, from information to entertainment. 

Morgen Witzel

I have been interested in history pretty much since I began to read. The Robin Hood legends were my gateway drug, and Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Renault, Dorothy Dunnett, C. S. Forester and George MacDonald Fraser drew me further in. By the time I was sixteen I was hooked.

I can’t quite explain the fascination history has for me. Partly, I suppose, it is the puzzles that history poses. Most historical inquiry involves solving a mystery, trying to understand what really happened with only incomplete data to go on. Partly, too, it is the excitement of uncovering something new and surprising. And history is nothing if not full of surprises. One of my favourite recent discoveries was the seventeenth-century career of Queen Ana Nzinga of Ndongo, an African state in modern-day Angola. Nzinga was a tough, resourceful woman who seized the throne after her brother the king died, and spent many years playing off local African kingdoms, Portuguese invaders and her own family against each other in order to stay in power. Forget the Tudors; someone needs to make a film about Nzinga.

My historical interests take several forms. I write about business history, and am currently writing an account of leadership, a monstrous, many-tentacled project which I am slowly wrestling to the ground. I remain very interested in the Middle Ages, and with my co-author (and wife) Marilyn Livingstone I have written books on the battles of Crécy and Poitiers in the Hundred Years War. And about four years ago Marilyn and I began writing historical detective fiction together, this time set in the late eighteenth century on Romney Marsh, under the pen name A. J. MacKenzie.

We chose the pen name in part to conceal my fiction-writing activities from my academic colleagues, many of whom would recoil in horror if they knew. They would think I was slumming it. History, they insist, is a ‘pure’ subject; to study it is to pursue truth in the name of intellectual enquiry, uncovering facts and making plain what had once been hidden. Fiction is just making stuff up.

Indeed it is, and that freedom to invent is one of the pleasures of writing fiction. (Another is not having to provide footnotes and bibliographies. I’ve written enough footnotes in my life; being able to write a book without them is an absolute delight.) But there is more to it than that. Writing historical fiction involves telling a credible and believable story about people who lived (or didn’t live) and events that happened (or didn’t happen) in the past, a story that will involve readers, draw them in and create characters who seem real and with whom they can identify. And that is exactly what writers of non-fiction history also do, even if the academic purists among them don’t always like to admit it.

There are of course differences between writing history and writing historical fiction. Wearing my historian’s hat, my primary duty is to inform my readers, and I am required to stick to facts or, if hypothesising about what might have happened, provide solid evidence to back my case. And if the evidence is lacking, and I don’t really know what happened, then I must admit it. One of the frustrations about being a historian is realising that there are some things we can never know. Evidence is fragile stuff. Records get burned or lost, archaeological remains are ploughed up or buried under the foundations of skyscrapers and motorways. What we can know about the past is very often dwarfed by what we do not know and probably never will.

Historical fiction allows us to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. It can allow us to make imaginative reconstructions of real events. This is the particular genius of Hilary Mantel. Her Tudor novels are well known, but A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution focusing in part on the rivalry between Danton and Robespierre is one of the best examples of reconstruction I know. The book helps us to see events through the eyes of those who made them, and understand what was going on in their minds. It is a study in forensic psychology as well as history.

Fiction also allows us to imagine new dimensions to the lives of historical characters. Few historic figures have been studied in more detail than Winston Churchill, but Paul Aitken, screenwriter and producer for the Canadian television series Murdoch Mysteries, discovered a hitherto unknown twenty-four-hour gap in Churchill’s early career where no one knows where he was or what he was doing. Paul used this to create ‘Winston’s Lost Night’, in which past events from Churchill’s military career catch up with him. In my view, it is one of the show’s best episodes.

Great historical writing creates a narrative that pulls the reader along. I read Roger Knight’s Britain Against Napoleon almost at a single sitting. Who would have thought that a book about the arming and provisioning of the British army and navy could be so compelling? But Knight brings the story alive by talking about people. Unforgettable is the story of Samuel Galton, the Quaker entrepreneur who supplied muskets to the army. When reproached by his fellow Quakers for involvement in the arms trade, Galton replied that his hands were clean; he merely made the muskets, and was not responsible for what people did with them.

When I write history, I try to identify and describe these same complex characters. One of the most fascinating, to me, was Matthew Gurney, son of one of the men who (allegedly) murdered King Edward II, but went on to give faithful service to the king’s son and grandson, serving beside the Black Prince at both Crécy and Poitiers. What went on there? As a historian, I don’t know and must not speculate. But as a writer of fiction I can give free rein to my imagination.

History has its limits, but it is also a powerful spur to the imagination. As any writer knows, creating complex, distinctive, believable characters is one of the hardest tasks. But history is full of them, a treasure trove waiting to be looted. Researching and writing history reminds me of how complex people are, and how few heroes are truly heroic; but also, how even the worst villains have positive sides to them. I was fascinated by the story of Stephanie ‘Queenie’ St Clair, a black woman ‘entrepreneur’ in early twentieth-century New York who was involved in organised crime. But Queenie St Clair did more than just run gambling rackets. She was also a champion of black civil rights, and campaigned for people of colour and women to be given the vote. Whether she was a hero or a villain depends entirely on your point of view.

I haven’t yet found a way to work Queenie into a story but we did draw on Samuel Galton’s pious hypocrisy to create a fictional character, the Quaker gunpowder maker Sylvester Cotton, in our novel The Body in the Boat. We have also plundered history for other characters, like the British army deserter turned Mohawk war chief John Norton, or the brilliant young navy officer Mauritius Adolphus Newton de Starck, whose exploits make Hornblower look like a weekend yachtsman. It would have been impossible to make up either of them.

The best historical writers are those who can integrate real and fictional characters so seamlessly that it is impossible to tell the difference. When George MacDonald Fraser published Flashman in 1969, several American reviewers thought the book was the autobiography of a real person. But the gold standard for this sort of integration for me is the late Dorothy Dunnett. In the Lymond novels in particular, she wove fictional events and people into the mesh of history so well that, even though I know Crawford of Lymond was a fictional creation, I still think of him when I read about the history of Anglo-Scottish borders. My understanding of those years of turmoil is coloured by seeing events through Lymond’s eyes.

To sum up, writing history and writing fiction are both forms of storytelling. Both require imaginative reconstruction; both are exercises in what we think might have happened and, if we are honest, both blur the boundary between information and entertainment. Good history tells us what probably happened. Good historical fiction tells us what might have happened, and makes us believe it is real.

Morgen Witzel is the author of more than thirty fiction and non-fiction books. With Marilyn Livingstone he is the author of The Black Prince and the Capture of a King: Poitiers, 1356. They also write fiction under the name A. J. MacKenzie, including the Hardcastle and Chaytor mystery series.

25-03-2019

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