The uncertainties of writing a historical novel

Writing a historical novel is not just a case of recounting people and events set in a bygone period.

Powered by automated translation

Writing a historical novel is not a case of just recalling people and events set in a bygone period. James Champ, currently working on his own novel, explains the uncertainties he has encountered in bringing long-dead characters back to life Ken Follett, Conn Iggulden, Philippa Gregory: some of the biggest names in historical fiction, and all authors of hugely anticipated books released over the past month or two. It's a genre that is traditionally scorned by critics and intellectuals, yet some of the world's best-loved works of literature have been fictionalised history, from Geoffrey of Monmouth and William Shakespeare to Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey series and the recent Hilary Mantel hit Wolf Hall. But if one thing is certain, history is not it: convincingly recreating an entire world that you have not lived in is as much a feat of imagination as of research, which is, perhaps, what makes bad historical fiction so very execrable.

And I have first-hand experience of those fiendish literary challenges. When I finally decided to pen my first novel, I knew it would be difficult, but I didn't expect it to become a five-year lesson in coping with uncertainty. Or not coping with it. The Sea Archer by James Champ, or How The Roman Empire Melted My Brain. There were all the usual worries, of course: did I have a story? Could I write? If I could, would anyone bother to read what I'd written? And my particular terror: the fear that I didn't have enough words inside me to fill an entire book. (My storyline was scrawled in ballpoint on a couple of sides of A4 in fairly large lettering. Could that really turn into a proper novel, the kind that you can buy in a shop? It seemed impossible.)

The first three years of my novel-writing career passed in a kind of haze, as I began to research the world my creation would inhabit, without having properly talked myself into giving it life at all. I walked into my first novel alert, with my eyes open… and staring in absolutely the wrong direction. Because I didn't realise that, even for the most confident writer, the craft of the historical novelist consists of delicately juggling the uncertainties of the past. The first uncertainty: the physical past. The second: the psychological past. And the third uncertainty? Working out how much of them the reader actually wants to know.

It's funny, this feeling of being adrift in the unknown, because the historical novel is probably the world's most solid, comforting artform: like quilt-making, but with added gore. I don't actually use the phrase "quilt-making" when I talk to Conn Iggulden, but I think he knows what I mean. Iggulden is a master of the sweeping historical epic. His Emperor series charts the rise and fall of Julius Caesar; the Conqueror books (the latest, Empire of Silver, came out in September) tell the story of Genghis Khan and his descendants. Real people, real history. "I think it gives you a leg-up into the reader's imagination," he says, "because they know that the main skeleton is true."

Louise Berridge, the author of Honour and the Sword, the first in a planned series set during the gruesome Thirty Years' War, goes further. "History plays such a small part in our lives," she says, "such a small part at school, but more and more of us are reading about it, researching our family trees, joining historical re-enactment groups. It's a desire to root ourselves in the past." That rings true. Our globalised world provides more opportunity than our ancestors could have dreamed of, but it's not a rock. It doesn't tell you where you came from, just where you might be going. And for most people, that's not enough.

Historical novelists certainly know where they come from, but boy do they have to work at it. When I decided to write a story set in the Roman empire I made a great effort to learn my subject. Then, with three years' historical research under my belt, I gave up my job and decided to move to a garret - I was doing things properly, you see. Garrets in south London failed to appeal so I rented a small cave overlooking the River Loire. Many houses in the Loire consist of a hole in the cliff with a wall thrown across the entrance: they're actually rather cosy and I felt, too, that living in a cave gave me a valuable link to the deep human past.

I pushed the dining table against the wall to serve as a desk, opened a ream of paper, gazed thoughtfully into the middle distance, took the cap off my fountain pen and stopped dead. The story's first scene was set in a mansio (a kind of imperial motel) in Roman Boulogne, in the morning. My characters were at breakfast, in fact. And with the nib poised over the paper I realised, with horrible certainty, that I hadn't the faintest idea what they were going to eat.

Inexorably, my ignorance continued to surface. Would they have eaten in their room or downstairs? How many floors did a mansio have? Did they have their own room or did they share? Finally, gawping like a stranded fish, I became aware that I didn't even know whether there'd been a mansio in Boulogne in the first place. "You have to know the material, the detail of day-to-day life," says Philippa Gregory, whose new novel set during the Wars of the Roses, The Red Queen, was released last month and whose Tudor novel, The Other Boleyn Girl, was made into a film. "You must know what, say, an interior was like so that you don't need to stop and look it up, because that breaks the flow of the writing."

Yes, it really does. I'd been reading the wrong books for three years. I had an excellent grasp of the causes and dynamics of the Third-Century Crisis, but I didn't know whether my characters wore socks. You'd think this would be a finite, solvable problem and yes, in theory, it is. Just learn everything about your period. But a period is gobsmackingly huge - just try to write down how many little details make up your own life, or even better the life of someone living in Vladivostok, and you'll get a sense of what I mean. Having plumbed the depths of ignorance once, I have no desire to plumb them again. Period detail has become a nagging obsession. Another one.

If the physical past is difficult to grasp, the mental past is something else. Some of my characters are real people. Seventeen hundred years ago they lived and fought and died, and cracked gags and picked their teeth and caught colds in the winter. Today, they're just a few fading scratches of a pen. But history is about characters, and novels certainly are, so somehow, we must bring them back to life.

At this point you have two choices. You can put modern characters in your lovingly recreated historical world, complete with modern sensibilities and modern points of view. Then, says Gregory, you have a costume drama. (She doesn't say that slightingly: she's just very clear that it's not a historical novel.) Or you can try to get inside the heads of people who existed hundreds of years ago, whose thoughts have been lost.

"We know their actions," says Gregory. "What they did reveals the sort of person they are." And in her hands that's true: the first-person narratives of Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret Beaufort, the White Queen and the Red Queen, are utterly believable - and in some ways utterly alien. The past is a strange place inhabited by strange people. "They were xenophobic, superstitious, frightened of women, profoundly ignorant of much that we take for granted. We have to remember all the things they didn't know. We have to come at it from the old knowledge."

It's only in this way that the physical world we've recreated makes sense. A 21st-century character would not cut off the head of a vanquished foe and use it as a cup. Celtic warriors did exactly that - at least to the heads that they weren't cutting off and preserving in cedar oil for later use. Which takes us to the third uncertainty. How much of all this do readers want to know? Again, it's a delicate balance. I know that my (so far entirely imaginary) readers don't want a history lesson. But with all that hard-won knowledge straining at the seams of my mind, it's difficult sometimes not to hand one out.

("The Hooded Spirits will protect our enterprise," said Censorius. "What?" replied Flavius Bubo. "The three figures wearing a typically British hooded cloak, or cucullus, whose representations are found all over the recently reorganised two British provinces?" "Yes!" cried Censorius. "So you know them too?") The simple rule is: if it's not part of the plot it doesn't get in the book. And there's enough of the past for any number of stories. "There are amazing scenes in history," says Iggulden. "I want people to think 'good grief, that really happened. Caesar really was captured by pirates. He really was given Pompey's severed head when he arrived in Alexandria'. And Genghis Khan - it's the biggest rags-to-riches story in human history."

But it's the little details that bring those epic tales to life. For Berridge, the stench of 17th-century Paris that could be smelled five miles away. For Iggulden, the Chinese lucky bat, described but never explained. Too many can swamp a story; too few and the narrative becomes bald. More decisions, and never a right answer in sight. But you know what? I've come to love the uncertainty. I'll still read a historical novel because it comforts as much as it excites, but I've continued writing mine - in spite of the hard work and torment - because it's made my life a lot less safe. As Louise Berridge put it: "It's the turning point, the moment at which you realise you know nothing, and you open the door and see what's really there."