Making real people work for youI write Historical Fiction. While my protagonists are entirely fictional, they now and then have to interact with “real” people – people who’ve existed, lived and died for real. This can be something of a bummer – especially when your perfectly crafted timeline suddenly crashes headlong into the wall of historical facts. That conversation your protagonist was to have with the wife of the Earl of Lancaster can no longer happen, seeing as the lady died some months before the planned meeting. The touching scene in which the king and his wife are reconciled must be scrapped – the king would no more reconcile with his wife than he would have a crocodile in his bed (which would not only be very weird, but also anachronistic, as there were no crocodiles in England in the 14th century). See? These real-life characters are hard to deal with. (In actual fact, so are the invented characters, as all of a sudden they start developing opinions of their own and generally refuse to cooperate when they don’t agree with the overall plotline, but that is neither here nor there – not in this post.)
At the same time including real characters in the story adds a certain nerve. People can read the book, become intrigued and spend some time googling the real characters. Hopefully, they come away with the impression that the author has done a good job adhering to the overall facts. If not, there may be a problem, as readers of historical fiction tend to be sensitive to incorrect information.
The further back in history you write, the more leeway you have when utilizing the real-life characters. Also, I think it important to underline that Historical Fiction is precisely that: fiction. Even when writing about real historical people, we must keep in mind that we don’t know these shadowy ghosts from the past. What we have are fragments of their lives (at best), mentions in this roll or the other, acidic comments in one chronicler’s version of events, praise in another’s. So what any good historical fiction author does is that he/she constructs a picture – fleshes out the spare bones we have left to create a living, breathing character (in as much as characters can breathe, of course). Every such representation is incorrect in that it does not – cannot – be a fair representation of the person who lived and died all those years ago.
This is why we get such varied depictions of historical people. Authors may start with the same bare facts, but then they’ll add biases and personal values, which is why Henry Tudor may come across as the villain in one book, as an earnest man with a mission in another. Thing is, we have no idea what he was really like. Was he passionate in bed? Did he have the enervating habit of sucking his teeth as he thought? Did he take reading matter with him to the garderobe? Did he eat the veggies first? Did he now and then curse that meddlesome mother of his to hell and back? We simply don’t know. What we do know is that he won at Bosworth – and that, according to some, is down to pure luck, while others will argue for divine intervention.
I guess the long and short of all this is that a historical fiction author must know his/her period, must be familiar with customs and foods, clothes and values. Of course, when writing about real people, the author needs to have read up on the facts that exist. But these are just the building blocks. A historical fiction author first and foremost wants to tell a story, and sometimes those real life characters have to be tweaked – a bit – so as to create the required tension. And so Henry Tudor is at times represented as diabolical, at others as an ambitious man who truly believes he deserves the English crown. A skilled author will have the reader accepting either or – for the sake of the story as such.
In my recent release, In the Shadow of the Storm, I am writing about a turbulent time in English history. We’re in the 1320s, and on the one side we have Edward II and his beloved favourite Hugh Despenser, on the other side we have the disgruntled barons, led by Roger Mortimer. I suppose Hugh Despenser must have had some nice, cuddly personal traits. Some. Maybe. But I am writing this book strictly in the POV of people who are 100% loyal to Mortimer, and as Despenser hated Mortimer’s guts – a sentiment returned in full – Hugh Despenser comes across as a nasty, sadistic villain. I am sure he was – to those who opposed him and his king. But he was also more than that – to the king he served, to his wife and children.
“Him? Despenser is a sick, perverted bastard,” Adam de Guirande mutters. He glowers at me. “You should have allowed me to kill him.” Hmm. I can understand where my dear Adam is coming from, given what Despenser puts him through, but Despenser’s subsequent fate is a matter of historical record, and no matter how much I commiserate with Adam’s desire to avenge himself on dear Hugh, I cannot let this invented male protagonist of mine have his way. Nope. (And this argument has had Adam sulking in the corners of my mind for weeks. I finally cajoled him into returning to the party by promising him he could…Well, you’ll have to wait and see what happens in the next book.)
Likewise, a lot of the book centres round Roger Mortimer. We know a lot about Roger – detailed inventories of what he owned when he was attainted survive, as do mentions in rolls and legal documents. His overall biography – birth, marriage, children, political career, death – is there for us to study. We know very little about him as a person, though. He has left us no diary, no Youtube clips in which he shares his personal views. This for me as a novelist is manna from heaven: as long as I stick to the facts, I can choose to depict Mortimer as it best suits me, and so I present you with a man of convictions, an honourable servant of the crown until something snaps in him. Is this a “true and fair” representation of the man? I don’t know – but then, neither does anyone else!
As I said right at the beginning, I write fiction. I have the joy of constructing a plot that weaves its way through the tapestry of known history, my invented leads interacting freely with the people who populate the history books – as I see them. Lucky me, hey?
In the Shadow of the Storm (The King's Greatest Enemy, Book One) by Anna Belfrage
Publication Date: November 1, 2015
eBook & Print; 398 Pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Adam de Guirande owes his lord, Sir Roger Mortimer, much more than loyalty. He owes Sir Roger for his life and all his worldly good, he owes him for his beautiful wife – even if Kit is not quite the woman Sir Roger thinks she is. So when Sir Roger rises in rebellion against the king, Adam has no choice but to ride with him – no matter what the ultimate cost may be.
England in 1321 is a confusing place. Edward II has been forced by his barons to exile his favourite, Hugh Despenser. The barons, led by the powerful Thomas of Lancaster, Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun, have reasons to believe they have finally tamed the king. But Edward is not about to take things lying down, and fate is a fickle mistress, favouring first one, then the other.
Adam fears his lord has over-reached, but at present Adam has other matters to concern him, first and foremost his new wife, Katherine de Monmouth. His bride comes surrounded by rumours concerning her and the baron, and he hates it when his brother snickers and whispers of used goods.
Kit de Courcy has the misfortune of being a perfect double of Katherine de Monmouth – which is why she finds herself coerced into wedding a man under a false name. What will Adam do when he finds out he has been duped?
Domestic matters become irrelevant when the king sets out to punish his rebellious barons. The Welsh Marches explode into war, and soon Sir Roger and his men are fighting for their very lives. When hope splutters and dies, when death seems inevitable, it falls to Kit to save her man – if she can.
In the Shadow of the Storm is the first in Anna Belfrage’s new series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, the story of a man torn apart by his loyalties to his baron, his king, and his wife.
When Anna fell in love with her future husband, she got Scotland as an extra, not because her husband is Scottish or has a predilection for kilts, but because his family fled Scotland due to religious persecution in the 17th century – and were related to the Stuarts. For a history buff like Anna, these little details made Future Husband all the more desirable, and sparked a permanent interest in the Scottish Covenanters, which is how Matthew Graham, protagonist of the acclaimed The Graham Saga, began to take shape.
Set in 17th century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, the series tells the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. With this heady blend of romance, adventure, high drama and historical accuracy, Anna hopes to entertain and captivate, and is more than thrilled when readers tell her just how much they love her books and her characters.
Presently, Anna is hard at work with her next project, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The King’s Greatest Enemy is a series where passion and drama play out against a complex political situation, where today’s traitor may be tomorrow’s hero, and the Wheel of Life never stops rolling.
The first installment in the Adam and Kit story, In the Shadow of the Storm, will be published in the autumn of 2015.
Other than on her website, www.annabelfrage.com, Anna can mostly be found on her blog, http://annabelfrage.wordpress.com – unless, of course, she is submerged in writing her next novel.
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In the Shadow of the Storm