On Hist Fic Saturday I am thrilled to welcome Historical Fiction writer
Why do I write historical fiction?
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
They are some of the best-known words in English literature. In fact, they are so well known that it’s easy to miss their impact. But for me, they sum up the reason I write historical fiction. I can still remember the effect they had on me when I first read them as a teenager, my puzzlement and sense of being challenged.
How could a time be both the best and the worst?
It didn’t make sense. Not until I realised that Dickens was telling me that there was no such thing as a final judgement on the past.
It was like a breath of fresh air – especially after years of studying history at school under headings such as “The Causes of the Seven Years War” and “Why Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham”. Then – bam, bam, bam – would come a list of Facts, cut, dried, examination-ready.
The opening of A Tale of Two Cities was something different. It said: people have different viewpoints; there is no single way of looking at things.
But how, I wondered, can this be, if we know the facts? If we have the records? Now, the answer seems obvious. We don’t have the facts. All we have is what the records that happen to have survived tell us, and that telling is always biased by the teller, whether intentionally or not. Some people and some facts might be left out altogether, or put in where they don’t belong, or shown in a favourable or unfavourable light. If we want to identify, explain and perhaps redress the bias, we have to speculate about matters such as a person’s motives, what happened to them, how that affected them. We have to start telling stories to account for their actions.
Which is where historical fiction comes in. For me, historical fiction is a way of thinking about what we know about history, making us more aware that that knowledge is not so clear cut. It’s not about trying to somehow recreate or accurately reflect something called the past. It’s about confronting the things that can’t be known: the records that got lost, and the things that were never recorded because they seemed too obvious, or too private, or too embarrassing, or too dangerous.
Our knowledge of history is continually subject to readjustment, so historical fiction is always relevant to the time in which it is written. New evidence is constantly coming to light: a Roman mosaic in Berkshire, the grave of Richard III, a rediscovered William Caxton text in Reading University archives. Attitudes change: an 1890s biography of the critic John Addington Symonds by Horatio Forbes Brown carefully omitted all references to Symonds’s homosexuality. Theories and approaches to history change: at one time it was concerned only with Great Men and Women but nowadays we also study the lives of so-called “ordinary” people. As Hilary Mantel put it, “For many years we have been concerned with decentring the grand narrative. We have become romantic about the rootless, the broken, those without a voice – and sceptical about great men, dismissive of heroes. That’s how our inquiry into the human drama has evolved: first the gods go, and then the heroes, and then we are left with our grubby, compromised selves.”
At its best, historical fiction reminds us about the nature of knowledge itself, how limited it is and, that being so, that it makes sense to be open to the possibility that we are not always right. There are so many ways of telling the same stories. In trying to understand them, we might let go of rigid ways of thinking, of bigotry and cliché and stereotypes. Alas, too many people cling instead to simplistic historical myths, such as the idea of plucky Britain united by the Blitz. I still remember talking to people a generation or two above me who enthused about the Second World War when “no one locked their doors because there wasn’t any crime”. Anthony Horowitz’s superb Foyle’s War – which is based on real war-time crimes – challenged that myth.
There’s a deep strand of speculation at the root of all historical fiction. For me that’s one of its greatest attractions. Nothing is final, everything is open for thinking and rethinking, for imagining and reimagining. It can be both the best of times and the worst of times. It all depends on the story you’re telling.
Find out more about Lucienne by following her social media links
Lucienne's latest novel The Butcher's Block is out now
During a routine patrol, police arrest two men in possession of human body parts intended for sale to the dissecting rooms of a London teaching hospital. Bow Street Runner and amateur pugilist Dan Foster makes the grisly discovery that they are the remains of fellow officer George Kean. The arrested men are charged with Kean’s murder, but Dan is not convinced that they are the killers. In pursuit of the real murderer, he investigates the unhallowed activities of the resurrection men – bodysnatchers.
The bodysnatching racket soon leads Dan to something bigger and much more dangerous. In a treacherous underworld of vicious pugilists, ruthless murderers, British spymasters and French agents, Dan must tread carefully…or meet the same terrible fate as Kean.
'The Butcher’s Block' is the second Dan Foster Mystery. 'Bloodie Bones', the first in the series, was joint winner of the Historical Novel Society Indie Award 2016.
The Fatal Coin is an ebook novella sequel to The Bloodie Bones
In the winter of 1794 Bow Street Runner and amateur pugilist, Dan Foster, is assigned to guard a Royal Mail coach. The mission ends in tragedy when a young constable is shot dead by a highwayman calling himself Colonel Pepper. Dan is determined to bring the killer to justice, but the trail runs cold.
Then Dan is sent to Staffordshire to recover a recently-excavated hoard of Roman gold which has gone missing. Here he unexpectedly encounters Colonel Pepper again. The hunt is back on – and this time Dan will risk his life to bring down Pepper and his gang.
Bloodie Bones Book 1 in the Dan Foster Mystery series
When Lord Oldfield encloses Barcombe Wood, depriving the people of their ancient rights to gather food and fuel, the villagers retaliate with vandalism, arson and riot. Then Lord Oldfield’s gamekeeper, Josh Castle, is murdered during a poaching raid. Dan Foster, Bow Street Runner and amateur pugilist, is sent to investigate.
Dan’s job is to infiltrate the poaching gang and bring the killers to justice. But there’s more to Castle’s death than at first sight appears. What is the secret of the gamekeeper’s past and does it have any connection with his murder? What is Lord Oldfield concealing? And did someone beside the poachers have a reason to want Josh Castle dead?
As tensions in Barcombe build to a thrilling climax, Dan will need all his wits and his fighting skills to stay alive and get to the truth.
Warmest thanks to Lucienne for being a very welcome guest on Hist Fic Saturday today
and for being the first author in my monthly spotlight
Coming next month : Jean Fullerton