A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
Fiction is fiction, right? It’s made up.
But what happens when you’re writing historical fiction? How truthful do you have to be and how many liberties can a writer take?
I’ve always said that I was very lucky to be writing my children’s historical time fantasy, The Serpent House (Curious Fox, 2014), as part of a creative writing PhD. Without the guidance of my supervisors, I may not have put quite so much thought into this question.
As part of this course, though, I read every children’s historical time-slip novel I could get my hands on, from the very first (Edith Nesbit’s The Story of the Amulet and Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, both published in 1906) to the present-day time travel novels that seemed to be being published faster than I could keep up with them.
I noticed that most of them took their historical facts pretty seriously. Those that got it wrong did so unintentionally – for example, the late Geoffrey Trease wrote about how he had a character in Mist Over Athelney (1958) settling down to a rabbit stew. A ten-year-old wrote him an indignant letter saying that there were no rabbits in England during the time of the Danish invasion. ‘I sent him my apologies and a signed copy of the book,’ Trease told interviewers. Sounds like the best response.
For around twenty years – between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s – traditional historical fiction fell out of favour. But novels with a time-slip element remained popular – so it became one of the ways to really engage younger readers with history. And the genre was unafraid to tackle some of the tougher areas – Jane Yolen’s stunning The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) sends a character to the concentration camps of World War Two. Given its theme of the importance of remembering, it’s not surprising that the historical research was painstaking.
My background is in journalism, so I felt a responsibility to the facts. What I also discovered, though, was that there are things that we have taken for granted for many years that have been proven to be untrue. For example, I was keen to include a scene in my novel involving the infamous ‘leper mass’ – a kind of medieval funeral service in which sufferers of leprosy were condemned to live alone and effectively be dead to their friends and family. The latest research shows that this was unlikely to have been a real thing – so I didn’t include it, of course.
I found that often, there are hidden jewels of stories to be found in the research – such as some of the more bizarre ‘cures’ for the disease that I was able to put into the story.
And the other thing I came to realise, when trying to research my very early period of history, was that there is quite a lot we don’t know and never will. ‘The facts’, in terms of the past, can sometimes be very elusive. And that’s when, as an informed and well-researched writer, you can get to be really creative.