Friday, 2 September 2016

Presenting the fact behind the fiction

This time last week I was in mid-Wales, talking about James Brooke as part of the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival. Rather to my surprise, a respectable audience (most dressed in Victorian costume) paid good money to come and listen. (None of the money came to me. The council no longer funds the Festival, so they need all the cash they can raise.)

This was a new experience for me. I was not talking about my book (although it may have been mentioned once or twice) but about the historical character it was based on.

When I first had the idea of writing about Brooke (so long ago he was practically a contemporary character) I did a lot of research. Frankly, I think I did too much. My first attempt at writing about him got bogged down in the realities of his life. I had an editor who suggested that I might be better off writing a straight biography, and at that point I realised I was badly off course And I put the novel on one side until I had managed to forget most of the research I had done. Now, decades later, I had to try to remember it all again.

It's an odd idea, when you come to think about it. Although there are writers of historical fiction who see themselves basically as historians who write novels (and some actually are historians with doctorates and published research), most of us are novelists who prefer to write stories based around real events. Asking us to lecture on history is a bit like asking people who write hospital romances to remove your appendix. So why might people prefer to get their history from people like me than from experts who really know what they're talking about?

Having done it, I think it does make sense.

It turns out I do know quite a lot about James Brooke. Not as much as the man who wrote the definitive biography, which I read all those years ago, but more than people who are going to turn up to hear a talk at a Victorian Festival. But, and this is significant, I don't know all that much about Brooke. That definitive biography has so much information, so many facts, that it is practically unreadable. Professional historians, it often seems, can get so involved with the minutiae of their subject that they miss the wider story. What the public (by which I mean people without history degrees) want is a narrative. They don't want the bare 'facts' about Brooke, but they want his story. They want to know how a rather over-indulged young man, who flitted from one project to another as the fancy took him, ended up ruling (and, on balance, ruling rather well) his own private kingdom in Borneo. And that's what I can tell them, and what can sometimes get lost in the work of learned scholars.

Me, trying to prove I've done some research

Preparing a talk on Brooke's life differs from writing a novel because you have a responsibility not to simply make things up. There are historical novelists who will say that they never just invent stuff (though that must limit their ability to write dialogue, I always think). I make stuff up all the time. In fact, part of my talk was on the way that writers (including writers of non-fiction) started making stuff up about James Brooke even in his lifetime. But my talk was (as far as I know) entirely truthful. Making sure that all my facts were right was a bit of a shock to my system. I had to return to my notes, check things in books, and generally spend quite a bit of time on it. I was relieved to find that most of the detail in The White Rajah was accurate, but there were some bits of history I had changed for the convenience of the plot and then completely forgotten about the reality. At least, though, I only had to satisfy myself to my own satisfaction. Real historians (good ones at least) can't just read something somewhere in a book and take the writer's word for it. They have to chase up the original source and confirm that the book they read got it right. They have to look at alternative possible truths, or versions of the truth, and weigh them against each other and explain their reasons for coming down on one side or the other. It takes a long, long time and, in the end, people really don't care. The world is happy to believe that Alfred burned the cakes, Canute tried to turn back the tide and Harold died with an arrow in his eye. We don't want a detailed discussion of why the first of these is false, the second a misinterpretation of something that probably didn't happen anyway, and the third is argued about by real historians on, it seems, an almost daily basis. I have read the details of the negotiations that led to James Brooke being appointed Rajah of Sarawak and, trust me, you really don't want to know. They were, essentially, diplomatic negotiations which involved the competing interests of different elements in the court at Brunei, Brooke's personal interest and his perception of what would most further British influence in the region. They went on a very long time. Somewhere in all this, there was an attempt to poison Brooke, which isn't that important historically. In my talk you get told about the poisoning attempt and about the outcome of the negotiations. That's why people like me can be more interesting than some academic historians.

Does this mean that historical novelists should move into writing non-fiction about their periods? I'm not sure that it does.

My books about James Burke (a real person, so I'm stuck with the confusingly similar name) are set in the Napoleonic Wars. Besides reading non-fiction about the period, I read Bernard Cornwell's wonderful series of books about the fictional Richard Sharpe. They provide a lovely feel for the period and the brutal realities of soldiering. It seemed perfectly natural, then, that when I wanted to study the battle of Waterloo for Burke at Waterloo, I should read Cornwell's non-fiction Waterloo. I'm picking on Cornwell because he is hugely successful and big enough to take it and Waterloo has garnered a lot of 5* reviews on Amazon, so it obviously provides many readers with exactly what they want. But it really, really isn't the place to go if you want a historically accurate account of the details of the battle. There are hundreds of historians who will tell you exactly who was doing what that fateful afternoon. I went to a two-day conference on Waterloo at which I listened to a brilliant talk by a man who has spent at least three years just researching the events at La Haye Sainte, the farm in the centre of the battlefield. I'll go to Cornwell for a general overview of what it might have been like for a rifleman there, but I'll go to a professional historian for an analysis of the type of ammunition used by the Brunswickers in their defence of La Haye Sainte.

Am I right to avoid non-fiction? Perhaps not. The suggestion of that editor all those years ago gets repeated every now and then, most recently by a publisher I definitely respect. Do any of my readers here (including those who write historical fiction) have their own views that they might share? Please comment on this page if you have.

For now, at any rate, I'm back to writing fiction, this time in the Peninsular Campaign. I've been spending a lot of time with maps of Spain and contemporary accounts of troop positions and lines of march, but James Burke's adventures with the guerrillas do not feature in any history I've read. I am, though, available to talk about the real historical background to all of my books. Not everywhere is as lovely and as broke as the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Festival, so I'm not necessarily free, but let me know if you're interested and we can sort something out. Contact me at

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