Thursday, September 16, 2010

What Makes a Historical Fiction Writer?

Yesterday, one of my colleagues sent me an article that appeared recently in The Independent, one of London's esteemed newspapers.

The article, written by historian Saul David, discussed why historians are better suited to writing historical fiction. Being a historical fiction writer, this caused me to pause.

David cites Alison Weir's runaway success as a historian-turned-novelist, explaining that the public wants to be entertained and educated and that because of this, historians are best at writing historical fiction because they can be trusted.

So I can't be trusted because I don't have an advanced degree in history?


I guess I am lucky because my professional training and education in historic preservation has afforded me my fair share of history classes. As a history minor, I had to write a Bachelor's Essay on a topic involving Elizabethan history. Being someone infinitely interested in social history, my topic was "The Implications of Marriage and Childbirth in Elizabethan England."

According to Mr. David, I might be more qualified than some authors, but no one has the right to assign "qualifications" if you ask me. That's like saying that you must have a MFA in Writing to be qualified to write a novel. But some people just have raw talent, while others have the passion to mold themselves into great writers. To suggest that our lack of an advanced degree disqualifies us is at best, wrong; at worst, just plain stuck-up.

I have read my fair share of poorly researched historical fiction, and because of that, I have set out to write historical fiction that can be trusted. There are many other authors out there who research every nuance of the period they are writing about in order to stay true to history. I know that the last thing I want is to be questioned by my readers about whether or not I've taken liberties with history.

So in response to this article, I ask: "Are historians unfit to write fiction?"

Maybe. maybe not. I've read Alison Weir, and yes, I could trust that what I was reading was the truth because she is a respected historian. But to be honest, the book was long, and in many parts boring. Some scenes were so painfully written that I had to skim through them. Eventually, I laid the book aside, and never finished it. Does this mean that I will never read a novel written by a historian again? No. In fact, the only good thing this article did was put me on to a young historian who is putting out her first fiction next year. I am eagerly awaiting its release.

So in the end, what makes a historical fiction writer? Is it education? Research? Talent? Skill?

I think it's passion. I have a desire to bring a specific period of history to life through fictional characters. It would an injustice to me and my characters if I were to misrepresent them. So how about historians respect our ability to craft great stories and we'll respect all those years they spent trapped in a moldy library researching 17th century merchant guilds?

I think that's a pretty straight deal.


  1. Those colleauges are pretty damn awesome, huh?

  2. Well, shoot--I wrote a response to this and managed to not post it, apparently. I ran across this, too, and it surprised me in a few ways. One, that the author perceived the audience as seeking historical accuracy so voraciously--I don't mean to be snarky, but given the ribald flaws in some works I've read (that did well), I'm a touch surprised at his assumption that the audience holds accuracy in such high regard. Maybe it's only the feeling or illusion of accuracy that they demand? And it's an easy assumption if the author is a professional historian.

    And, of course, am saddened (as I often am) by the assumption that letters behind a name are the only markers of credibility. I assume that any HF writer is putting in their time researching--and you don't have to be a professional to put in your time at the library! The sole advantage I see is, perhaps, better access to resources. Even an amateur who spends decades researching a topic may know more about it than a professional.

  3. PS Hope you don't mind that I wrote my own post abou this and linked back :)

  4. I totally agree. And I read your post...much more eloquent than mine! :-)