FICTION, HISTORY AND RESEARCH

In the wake of writing a mammoth speculative fiction, I’ve switched gears and begun work on a piece of historical fiction. While my having a history degree is an advantage to the completion of this task, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much I’ve learned in the brief period of working on the current project.

If I apply any rule to writing fiction, it is that regardless of the genre, there must be plausibility in the events and characteristics of the created world. And if I don’t know something about a particular topic raised while writing the story then I feel obligated to correct that lack of knowledge.

Key to ensuring the historical accuracy of my current work-in-progress is a basic understanding of the weaponry of the period in which the novel is set. For example, today I learned that there existed a firearm called a dog-lock which in addition to being widely used at the time, was also a forerunner to the better known flintlock. Thanks to the swashbuckling stories I read as child, what I had always assumed to be flintlocks are or were in reality dog-locks.

Essentially both weapons worked on the same basic principles and the term dog-lock is seldom used in most fiction. However, back in the day, the term was familiar to those who owned firearms and who naturally were better acquainted with both the limitations and capabilities of that weapon versus the flintlock. I also learned much about swords of the period, their origins and who would have been most likely to possess such weapons.

Assuming the finished draft is eventually published, it’s doubtful that most readers will care too much about these kinds of weapons. However a key responsibility of a writer is verisimilitude: Provided said accuracy is presented in a sensible manner.

Not that we can’t allow some flexibility in fiction, so long avoid creating distortions. Growing up I read a lot of fantasy and horror and in both cases I was drawn to authors who injected “real-world” attributes into their stories.

My favourite author in the fantasy genre is the late David Gemmell, and in particular his novels Lion of Macedon and the Rigante Series.

Lion of Macedon incorporates the biographies of Parmenion, Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great with magic and the supernatural. The involvement of these characters in real events unfolds in a background where forces of Light and Chaos are in constant battle for the soul of humanity. In the novel these same forces come to bear in events such as the historic Battle of Leuctra and the Theban Revolt against Spartan rule.

However in my opinion, Gemmell’s best works are also his most underrated. The Rigante Series comprising four novels is set in an alternate universe where a tribe called the Rigante (based on the ancient Gauls and Celts) is forced to battle an invading forces from the Empire of Stone (a stylized version of Ancient Rome). One of themes of the first two novels is how a decentralized tribal society is forced to become a centralized kingdom in order to preserve that society’s culture. A further underlying theme examines how that culture is irrevocably changed out of necessity and how those changes can undermine the core values of society.

This idea is powerfully illustrated in the final novel Stormrider. Set some fifteen hundred years after the events of the first two novels, Stormrider is set during an alternate-world version of the English Civil War. Here the Rigante (i.e. the Scottish people) are forced to resist subjugation at the hands of the neighbouring Varlish (i.e. English). After enormous bloodshed a compromise peace is reached. However the resulting energies unleashed by the war and subsequent peace leads directly to the subjugation of another tribal society: At the novel’s end, Rigante explorers have sailed to an alternate seventeenth century New World and made contact with indigenous tribes they intend to conquer. It’s a fitting and emotive ending to the series invoking the tragic consequences of imperialism.

In the case of historical fiction research is especially important to ensure both plausibility and accuracy. As a historian I find it especially important to ensure accurate detail lest the historical fiction become a form of hagiography. A personal gripe I have with cinematic portrayals of historical events (and with period dramas of any description) is that too often they serve as propaganda for the present day.

For example while the Masterpiece series Downton Abbey has a devoted fan-base and excellent production qualities, it also serves to glorify what was a highly stratified and unequal society whose attributes were major factors triggering the First World War. In our contemporary era many of the socioeconomic orthodoxies such as neoliberalism, trickle-down economics and means-tested social benefits are simply updated regurgitations of the same laissez-faire Social Darwinism prevalent in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. The indirect (and possibly unconscious) aim of period dramas like Downton Abbey is to romanticize these unjust and amoral doctrines for use in the present day.

Denis Diderot writing in the Encyclopedie wrote:

You can divide facts into three types: the divine, the natural and the man-made. The first belongs to theology, the second to philosophy and the third to history. All are equally open to question.

The inherent danger of historical fiction is that the facts of a historic event or figure can easily be distorted for the purpose of public manipulation. The dishonesty of such distortions ranks alongside those distortions as the greatest disservice a writer can do for the common weal. This may sound like a cantankerous perspective but it is valid nonetheless.

For example take a scene from the film X-Men: First Class in which the mythical superheroes stave off the Cuban Missile Crisis. The storyline would have the public believe that both the Soviet Union and the United States were deceived into their near apocalyptic behaviours. In reality the very structure of both militaries and governments exacerbated the Crisis which, if it had further escalated would have resulted in the deaths of countless millions. Furthermore, the film does a massive disservice to the only hero of the fiasco Vasili Arkhipov, the Soviet naval officer who refused to allow a planned nuclear strike to go ahead. While X-Men: First Class is a well-made movie it is also an example of contemporary myth-making.

I’m not certain it’s possible to write historical fiction without creating some distortions of historic realities. However, while fiction may allow free license to subjective perspective, the important thing for both writer and reader to bear in mind is that the end product of historical or any other fiction is fiction. The primary function of fiction is to entertain, not inform. If a reader wants to be informed on a subject and failing the possibility of first-hand research, they need to read widely within available secondary sources on a topic. As citizens we have a responsibility to be informed in order to participate within society. Failure to do so is an abdication of individual responsibility.

And if you choose to study history by reading fiction, then you’re not being very responsible!

 

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