Why historians should write fiction

ARTICLE

 Ian Mortimer

“Your book reads like a novel,” is a comment that popular historians often hear. When said by a general reader, it is a compliment: an acknowledgement of the fluency of the writing and a compelling story. If a historian uses those same words, however, it is an insult. It means ‘you cannot be trusted on your facts’. Hence the title of this piece is bound to infuriate every reader of this journal, for it implies that historians should tell lies. After all, that is what novelists do, isn’t it? Make it all up if they don’t know the facts?

I ought to explain at the outset that I am a novelist (James Forrester) as well as a historian (Ian Mortimer), and I write history for the mass market as well as scholarly articles. As a novelist, I tell lies. Whoppers. All historical novelists do. In my case, I have historical characters like Sir William Cecil and Francis Walsingham say and do things that they never really said or did. I make people die from causes that they did not die of, use modern langauge in their speech, and I change people’s names. As a historian, I do not tell lies. I scrupulously note primary and secondary sources. However, I have learned a great deal about history from writing historical fiction. And it is because of this learning experience that I want to recommend it.

Two factors in particular underpin this positive experience. The first is simply the very testing nature of ‘recreating’ a past world. Historical fiction requires you to know about many aspects of life you have not thought about before. How do people speak to their children, wash their hair, lock a door, clean their teeth and get undressed for bed? Why was it difficult at low tide to row under London Bridge, did taverns provide meat in Advent in 1567, did physicians wear beards, and so on. You suddenly find that your evidence-orientated knowledge of the period is just not enough; it does not equip you to describe in detail how a man or woman passes one whole day, let alone a number of different men and women across the period of several weeks. All the fourteenth-century evidence you have ever read will not tell you enough to describe the experience of simply walking down a street in London in 1359 and ordering a pint of ale in a tavern. How clean is the floor? Are there husks on top of the ale? Is the barrel in a cellar? For this reason all historical fiction is, in respect of its historical content, unsatisfactory. You would always like to be able to do better.

The construction of characters is similarly testing. A historian writing history never has to create character: he allows it to emerge from the evidence. He never needs to guard against the inconsistency of his character’s traits. Nor does he need to invent ways in which one character influences another. Historians reveal human interactions through examining the evidence for a man’s words and deeds in relation to that other individual. Creating fictitious characters who interact with one another goes beyond just imagining the past: it requires you to imagine it and then to change it, gradually and believably, in the reader’s imagination.

This is why historical fiction is so difficult. It doesn’t matter whether you base it on reality or make it all up, you still have to create another believable world – something that can pass for the past in the minds of readers. Given that your readers might well be other historians, the deceit has to be pretty damned good.

This is not the end of the difficulties: next there is the writing. Academic historians have normally lost the ability to write dramatically or with empathy. It has been trained out of them. The traditional obligation to be ‘objective’ impedes them from writing a stirring account of a battle, or a romantic account of a love affair. Even though battles were undoubtedly stirring in real life, and love affairs are the epitome of romance, academic historians do not wish to be seen to be moved by their subject. Scholars have learned too well the craft of distilling evidence to its very essence, the clear liquid of a synthetic truth, and in an educational establishment that is all that is required. It is easy to forget that it is not the essence that most people are interested in but the wider world that created the evidence in the first place.

Form and content are kept poles apart in academic history. In biography, fiction, film-making, drama  and poetry they come together naturally,  and are regarded as complementary. But why not write scholarly history dramatically and thereby bring scholarship to tens of thousands of readers? Why not write in the present tense? Why not write a day-by-day diary of another person? Why not be inventive? Why not write fiction? Why not write a biography of someone as if you are that someone, as Peter Ackroyd did in his biography of Oscar Wilde. I cannot help but feel that if a few of our Agincourt experts were to write an ‘autobiography’ of Henry V they would ask themselves very difficult questions about why he did what he did, and discover a fear and a resolution quite apart from the current view of the man.

The second reason for saying that historical fiction is a great educational exercise is more philosophical. All the difficulties above really add up to identifying lacunae – a lack of knowledge of aspects of everyday life, the lack of literary form in academic historical writing, and the failure to recognise alternative points of view. Much more profound is the realisation that history is not primarily about the past. It is about human nature. What makes it historical is that it examines human nature through the prism of a different age.

To be honest, it was not in the course of writing a novel that I realised this. It was after writing two novels and while writing The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. The latter describes what you would find if you really could go back to the late sixteenth century. At one point I was finding it very hard going – inexplicably so, for I love the period, had plenty of source material, and everything was planned out. What I found was that, in trying to replicate the format I had used for my medieval Time Traveller’s Guide (a similar guide to the fourteenth century), I was constantly in danger of repeating myself. Several of the points I felt had to be said about education, old age or cleanliness were repetitions of things I had said in the earlier book. What that meant was that my points did not arise from the period I was studying, they arose from my similar reactions to these different past criteria.  What I was writing about was my understanding of people in all ages, not just this or that century.

That realisation led to another – that this is what good historical novelists do. Often without realising it, they will choose a historical period to bring out some aspect of human nature. In my case, I had chosen to set my fiction in the sixteenth century because I wanted to write about loyalty and betrayal. Loyalty to one’s spouse, to the state and to one’s faith have huge resonance in a sixteenth century context, much more so than in today’s easy going world. I used the historical setting of the 1560s to amplify what I wanted to say about people.

History allows us to see human nature in a deeper way. It is all very well describing the world today, with its wars, commercial greed, philanthropy, courage, fear, etcetera; but when you start to contrast the past with now you become aware that humanity has far greater depth than appears from a knowledge of the here and now. The ‘we’ of us becomes not you and me but something hundreds, even thousands of years old. At times we treated our neighbours with huge suspicion, yet we defended each other frequently against enemies. We survived repeated epidemics that wiped out huge swathes of our population, and burned people alive for what they believed. Betrayal, loyalty, love and deceit – all human life is there, as they say, but amplified beyond what we personally may experience in the modern world.

That is why historians should write historical fiction. It teaches you how little you really know about the minutiae of the past, and destroys professional complacency. It humbles even the most experienced researcher. It demands that you think deeply about human character, and how it is formed, and how people integrate. But most of all it shows you that there is a different sort of truth beyond the measurements of facts and dates: truths about human nature which are timeless, or, at least, very slow-moving. And it leaves you thinking that these truths, although they are unproveable, are probably the most important historical conclusions of all, for they reflect what we are, and what we can be, both as individuals and as a society.

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About Matt Phillpott

I am an historian of early modern Britain and the Digital Resources Manager at the School of Advanced Study. My main area of interest is in the authentication of knowledge in early print, including religious, historical, and agricultural texts.

43 thoughts on “Why historians should write fiction

  1. I really like the idea that you could be an acknowledged expert on, say, the political history of a period, and yet in fact be unable ‘to describe in detail how a man or woman passes one whole day’…it’s a very powerful illustration of why first social and then cultural history have become increasingly central to the profession…

  2. It becomes more difficult the further back in time you go. I’m currently writing a novel set in the age of Stonehenge, around 2400 BC, a period I have written about academically. As Ian says, it has forced me to think about issues that I hadn’t thought about in my academic writing (and could never have addressed academically because the evidence simply doesn’t exist). I don’t tell lies, as such (things that I know to be untrue) but I certainly make things up, and parts of the novel will probably feel like fantasy writing, because I am having to make up almost as much as Tolkien did.

  3. Well I am writing a novel about something on which not enough files have been released; not here nor in another country, so it seemd not realistic to pursue it academically.

    I wonder if anyone can comment on this query I have: when writing a novel about the recent past charecters are usually not given their real names despite the fact they are dead and cannot be libelled. I am not clear why this is. Any ideas?

    • Mary, I think it’s a certain queasiness, in many people, about taking over a real person’s life which isn’t theirs. Certainly one can have one eye on what the relations and descendants might think.

      Certainly Helen Dunmore has said this about the real lives that she based her novel The Siege on (even though as far as I know all the main characters are fictional). On the other hand, in the same discussion Michel Faber said he didn’t buy into the idea that there is a Truth to which the novelist must pay obeisance, because the selection and arrangement involved means that there isn’t a clear line between a true story and a fictional one: “everything is a story.”

      It’s also about finding an imaginative freedom. If you do feel, as many writers do that you can’t change the known facts, but only write on the spaces between them, then a well-documented figure may have only very small spaces to write on… That’s why Toni Morrison didn’t write Beloved explicitly about Margaret Garner: “Not enough space for my imaginative purposes” – even though the book is quite closely based on MG.

      Atwood puts her intermediate position very clearly in her essay “In Search of Alias Grace”, about writing her novel Alias Grace (which I’d recommend hugely to anyone grappling with these issues): there are a lot of spaces in the real life Grace’s story, “so there is a lot of invention”. Atwood also makes the dichotomy which is often used, of “truth” versus “fiction” much more nuanced: most of what are thought to be the facts of Grace’s real story are actually the record: “‘The past is made of paper’, Atwood observes, but there is ‘no more reason to trust something written down on paper then than there is now’;

      anyone grappling with these issues

    • I believe that you should ask the family of the deceased if you can use the persons real name and other family members. If it was my family I would prefer names be different for protection of the family. If you wrote a novel and used the real names it’s like reading a long newspaper article or an autobiography/biography.

  4. Bravo Ian Mortimer, you tell it like it is – thank you! I have nothing to add because you have said it all. I would just like to give plaudits in my own field of interest to Professors David Crouch and Robert Bartlett for having the skill to write academic material in a way that does not send the general reader to sleep. It’s a gift rarer than it should be.
    Mary – just a couple of thoughts. People recently dead still have living relatives who might take umbrage and sue depending on the contents. There is perhaps more delicacy observed with those more recently deceased; their bones still have flesh attached so to speak.

  5. Ian, on the way home on Friday I remembered the quotation from Rose Tremain which had been lingering just beyond my mental reach all afternoon. It’s from her essay “The First Mystery”, in the collection The Agony & The Ego (ed. Clare Boylan, Penguin 1993, p.5). Tremain says:

    “…all the research done for a novel – all the studying and reading, all the social fieldwork, all the location visiting, all the garnering of what is or what has been – must be reimagined before it can find a place in the text. It must rise into the orbit of the anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind before it can acquire its own truth for the work in question…

    “Graham Green, when asked by a journalist how he would make use of an important experience he’d had in South East Asia, replied: “It’s yours to remember and mine to forget.” He was talking about the novelist’s task of reimagining reality. Reimagining implies some measure of forgetting. The actual or factual has to lose definition, become fluid, before the imagination can begin its task of reconstruction. Data transferred straight from the research area to the book will simply remain data. It will be imaginatively inert.”

    I’ve just jumped a blog post of my own off this quotation, in which I’ve been taking this idea further – why forgetting your research is a necessary part of creating fiction, and why it’s rooted in some quite fundamental stuff about how the mind works – so I hope it’s not a breach of etiquette to post the link:

    http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2011/11/yours-to-remember-and-mine-to-forget.html

  6. Pingback: Burnable Books | “Why historians should write fiction”: A conversation with Ian Mortimer (aka James Forrester)

  7. Reblogged this on DH Hanni and commented:
    History certainly comes alive for me when an historian or author can explain the why in depth rather than the how. Why I should care about any of the people involved. History at its very best makes that vital connection showing people’s motivations and actions of the past still strongly relate to modern society.

  8. There are a couple of historical novels I would like to write, and your post makes me feel a bit like chucking my current research and finally doing that.

    In the meantime, though, I found it a great compliment when one of the reviews for my last (academic history) book opened with ‘Sometimes life is better than fiction.’

    http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/oct/26/most-remarkable-woman-john-carter-wood-review

    There are perhaps historians who might find that kind of praise suspicious (though I think the barriers between popular and ‘academic’ history are much wider here in Germany than in the UK or US), but I think it’s the kind of thing toward which historians should be striving.

    Good post!

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  10. I an not an author, nor an historian, but a big history buff and avid reader of historical fiction, historical mystery, historical biographies, and I expect certain poetic license to be taken with historical fiction/mysteries. I would expecet accuracy from an historian and references to sources. Some ppl get to hung up on accurate facts in fiction. A good novelist will do research and in their notes at the end of the book will explain where they changed dates, places, etc., for the storyline to work.

    • I am an author. I also love reading historical fiction. I recently finished a book, that I really liked. However, I was taken out of the story by one peculiar fact that distracted me. I try not to get hung up on the facts, but some things do need to be accurate when portraying a certain period.

      • I agree, there are some things which often don’t work in the wrong context, or drop you out of the story. There is artistic license then there is just plain wrong. It is the challenge of the historical novelist to change the truth to be a new form of truth, or at least a plausible lie.

  11. I love historical fiction (I love Sharon K Penman’s novels the most) – it allows you to see things outside of the vacuum of ‘events’ and get a perspective of possible motivation for things we just think of as factoids – they are put in context of the times and events. I wanted to learn more about history through the readings of many of my most favorite historical fiction writers. Loved this post!

  12. It is always more interesting to read fiction that actually teaches me something new about people time and places. To be transported and forget where you are is what makes a good novel so worthwhile.

  13. This is such a dead-on and insightful post, and as a historical novelist, once you heed this: “Much more profound is the realisation that history is not primarily about the past. It is about human nature. What makes it historical is that it examines human nature through the prism of a different age.” Once you realize this is part of your job while writing historical fiction you are on your way, giving breath and life to the time period, its people, and perspectives — making these things accessible to readers today.

    Regards,

    Stephanie Renee dos Santos
    http://www.stephaniereneedossantos.com

  14. This article gave a very interesting insight into the inadequacies of a strictly historical approach to understanding the past. The details necessary for a fictional narrative set in another time make the history come alive as well as create a greater empathy with actual persons. I am currently using the Time Travel to Elizabethan England in conjunction with a Christopher Marlowe class I am taking…just wondered, why did Ian Mortimer omit Edward II from the book?

  15. Would a fair extension of “Human nature through the prism…”, Human nature through the prism of potential is Science Fiction?

  16. I wish I have a better english, but so far, I can tell, history fiction drama is the most complex of all. I tryng to write a book, set in 15s. I see now that I have more research before continuing. I hope I can learn a lot more in classes.

    I almost forgot, I enjoy very much your text, mister Mortimer

  17. Thank-you for this post. The comment that resonated with me especially is: history is about human nature. While the accessories that form the backdrop to our lives have changed, it doesn’t seem that people have really changed since Biblical times (and before from even before that).

  18. Reblogged this on Library of Erana and commented:
    This is one of the readings from the Plagues, Witches, and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction course, from Coursera. Historical fiction is difficult genre, it needs to be plausible but that plausibility is often a lie. It needs to be a convincing one! Historical characters may or may not have said what is written, or in such a way, or reacted as they did. History is the story of humanity and thus historical fiction needs to reflect this. People haven’t changed an awful lot in the last few thousand years. Individuals, yes in part, and technologies etc but emotions, and what makes humans human remains the same. Wars are still fought, for much the same reasons, gods are worshiped or rejected for much the same reasons, governments and economies rise and fall, and people love, hate and fear much the same, although from a slightly different perspective.

    Reblogging this as it is so interesting.

  19. I love this essay. As a historical fiction author I feel a great responsibility and challenge to do justice to the times and the characters I portray in them–for the very reasons Mr. Mortimer points out. Historical fiction can teach us about the everyday life of our forebears in a way that straight-up fiction can’t. Bravo!

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  21. This essay has really made me think from both sides. Most people really do find it offensive if the exact detail is not given in a novel. Whether it is a fiction or an account about the evidences found regarding various forms of history. People always want to hear good stuff about their personal beliefs or more probably being on the good side. You really cannot judge the tiny facts because u really don’t know so in that time making that up is not a bad idea after all. So great job on the essay.

  22. These are very true and relevant comments. History is always skewed by the person who is revealing the story. Where were you when JFK was killed? This is a good example of perspective of history based on the person telling the story. I was a one year old. I don’t remember JFK except from the news, biographies and the films. Someone older than myself will have a completely different perspective of that historical event.

  23. Pingback: Writing Historical Fiction | History Re-Written

  24. Pingback: Ian Mortimer: Im Mittelalter – Handbuch für Zeitreisende (2014) | buchpost

  25. Reblogged this on Rebecca Gethin and commented:
    If anyone happens to be coming to my reading of ‘What the horses heard’ with discussion on Historical Fiction at Exeter Library on Thurs 19th at 5-7 (date and time correct here) or at Worcester Literary Festival next Weds pm (June 26th) you might like to read this brilliant piece in advance… only then you will know everything and might not want to come…. hmmmm

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  27. As a visual artist who writes I found that narrating a family history through my artwork caused some criticism from my two siblings, who are six years and twelve years older than me. It interested me that each said my account was not accurate whilst I stood by my version of the family story. It occurred to me that we each were right as each of our experiences put different importance upon what had happened as well as why it had happened. Each of us placed different value upon the sounds, visuals, characters and surroundings within the experience. Three ‘true’ stories existed of an individual happening. I am sure the same exists throughout history.

  28. I love the way that was explained. I will never read another historical fiction book again and not stop to imagine what the people are like. I’m sure everyone will have a different experience with what they imagine. I will put alot of your writing into use when I read.

  29. I am currently writing a piece about “Why we write historical fiction” and plan to include a link to this blog page as a bit of a ‘mirror image’. Thanks for posting and I hope it’s okay to post the link to here on my own blog. It will be live on 13th December, please contact me if you don’t wish me to include the link.

  30. Reblogged this on Eclectic pleasures and commented:
    A well-argued piece by Ian Mortimer (James Forrester) – the case for historians immersing themselves in the past by writing historical fiction, and reflecting what they want to say about the human condition in the mirror of times in history when certain beliefs, mores, or behaviours were much more prevalent. There’s a simlar argument for good science fiction, too.

  31. For me the argument for a more creative approach to writing academic history was the key point raised in the talk. Engaging a wider audience through the medium of well written and accessible ‘academic’ history would be the best possible outcome. Writing history is an art, is it not? Making sure that the narrative is strong and the human experience is articulated in a manner that brings out all aspects of humanity, are other key ingredients to good writing.

  32. Pingback: Free Study of Historical Fiction from the University of Virginia | Jacki Kellum Juxtapositions: Read My Mind

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