I’ve always believed pretty firmly that the best historical fiction is a careful blend of fact and the author’simagination, but the word careful isn’t thrown into that statement lightly. Before any would be writer can hope to do themselves justice in the eyes of their intended readership they must first become master of the period they hope to use the backdrop for their story telling abilities. Many readers are drawn to the genre because of their pre-existing interest in the period depicted, and among their number there will always be more than a few who will always know more about that part of history than an author can hope to achieve (unless the author conveniently happens to be an Oxford don – *tips hat to Sidebottom*). That doesn’t mean that the writer has to know more than everyone else, but it does mean that when any specific historical fact reaches the page – the colour of a Roman toga in the Republican era, the length of a crusader’s sword, the calibre of a British service rifle in 1898 – it has to be accurate. If not, the author is condemning himself to receiving at least one perfectly justified expression of disappointment from a reader who has found some fundamental error or other in their expensively purchased copy of the writer’s opus.
I can’t pretend to have chosen (serendipitously) the late 2nd century AD for this reason alone – although it was a factor – but my chosen era of history is perfect from a historical novelist’s perspective, given that most of what we know about the Roman empire comes from a relatively small number of surviving sources. And at least one of those – the Historia Augusta – is now recognised as deeply untrustworthy by historians. How does that help me? Here’s an example.
We know that three main opponents faced off for the imperial throne between AD193 and 197, Septimius Severus (the eventual winner) and a pair of senators, Albinus and Niger. Little enough is known about these two failed contestants, just enough, in fact, to make them perfect blank canvases for my Empire series. Having already introduced them to the reader in book five (The Wolf’s Gold), we will be spending a fair amount of time in their company between AD184 and 193, as they…ah…but that would be telling.
My point is this – the sweet spot of historical fiction for this author isn’t so much what we know, but more what we don’t know. And it helps that the men concerned have been dead for the best part of two thousand years, which means that I can make them as flawed as I like without fear of reprisal. And it’s the same with actual events. When I wrote Wounds of Honour, against the background of the British rebellion of the early AD180’s, all I could find was the rather bland statement that a general was lost in a disastrous start to the campaign. The governor? A legatus? If you’ve read the book you’ll know the choice I made, and how I portrayed the rebellion’s destruction across the first three books, all of it completely made up. By contrast the series I plan to write alongside Empire, when I can get some interested drummed up, is set in a period of history when the means of mass communication were in place, and is therefore intensively well documented. In that case, I muse, I will have to be much more careful to work my imaginings into the web of what is known about the men and battles of the era.
So, what’s the best balance of fact and fiction in our chosen genre? Whatever you can get away with and still avoid the wrath of the experts, I’d say. Just make sure you do your reading first. Lots of reading!
Anthony Riches’ latest Empire novel, THUNDER OF THE GODS, is out now.
Amy is responsible for the smooth running of the H for History website, and enjoys reading history-based fantasy. She also like to photograph sites of historical interest in her spare time with a cup of bovril and a pork pie for company. Favourite period of history: Ancient;
Favourite historical read: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave;
Upcoming book i'm most looking forward to: Mister Memory by Marcus Sedgwick
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