Sunday, 19 September 2010

Story Teller or Historian?

I read a lot of reviews, both of my own work and that of others. Sometimes, if I have enjoyed a book enough, I will review it, if I don't like it, I keep quiet. I have noticed in the course of my reviewing how very harsh some reviewers are.

I am not talking about constructive criticism, which is always welcome, but churlish, sometimes nasty nit picking. My mother taught me that if you can't say something nice then it is best to refrain from comment, so I am often greatly shocked at the destructiveness of some reviews.

Every writer, be he good or bad, puts his soul into his work and deserves respect for that. I have read comments that could, at the very least, make a writer throw away his pen for good when all he may need is a few more revisions, a little more polish. If a person has the urge to write then write he jolly well should and sit-at-home-on-their-bums-reviewers should bear that in mind.

I have never had a nasty review myself (yet) luckily, the people who don't like my work have been brought up as I have. Admittedly there are some dreadful novels out there, full of inaccuracies but everyone makes mistakes. It is not a crime. We are all on a learning curve.

The criticism that bugs me most is, 'well that would not have happened' or 'this did not happen that way, it happened this way.' What these critics are forgetting is that 'History is bunk,' made up of opinion, hypothesis and supposition. Historians can only guess at what it was really like.

We can't know what it was like to live in a wooden hall with no santitation, no medicine, faced with famine, childbirth, pestilence and war. Novelists are only guessing, just like the historians and the written record only provides a useful glimpse into the past. In many cases the chronicles are the work of just one man, one opinion, one view of events and every view is biased one way or another. There must have been a million alternative undocumented perspectives and, when it comes to women, well, nobody bothered to document them.

One criticism I have had in the past is that my women are too forceful. 'Women had to do as they were told,' being the usual cry. But we dont know that, we know that were expected to behave in a certain way but that doesnt mean that they did. We have expectations of our youth today but I dont know many who live up to them.

There are plenty of instances where women have acted outside the acceptable parameters of their society, women who led armies, betrayed and brought down their husbands rule, undermined a kingdom. It is these women I keep in mind as I write.

I have always read historical novels and I still do. I love them. There are a number of authors that rank high in my estimation but there are also those who don't. I grew so sick of simpering heroines falling at the feet of superdooper males that, in the end, I invented my own.

I present my women in, shall we say, difficult circumstances and they fight back, with what ever weapons are to hand be it by way of the sword or their sexuality. Their object is to survive. They are often grumpy, argumentative and selfish - just like real people. And I try to make the male leads multi-faceted too, you won't find anyone entirely nasty or purely innocent in my books because, ultimately, I want them to be human.

Most of my stories take place before or just after the Norman Conquest when women had status and their opinions were valued. Anglo Saxon women were not kept out of view behind castle walls. They played a vibrant, important role in society and in the Celtic parts of Britain it was the spindle, and not the spear, that ruled. Just as it should.

GEtting back to my original question Story Teller or Historian? Well, I think there is a half way place where novelists can illuminate the past in a vivid, moist manner that historians cannot. And, if they stretch reality to fit their story, well, that is ok, just as long as the reader is made aware that the novel is listed under fiction, not fact.


  1. Hi, Judith.
    I really like what you wrote, esp. about feisty heroines. I think you're right - and I feel for those women who did not fit the prevailing stereotype.It must have been very difficult for them.
    I like historical novels that look at the past through a modern sensibility, anyway. Some of my favourite authors do this - Sarah Dunant and Sarah Waters. (What is it with Sarahs and historical novel writing?)
    Sheila Dalton

  2. Well said.
    I love historical fiction AND non fiction - usually in the form of biographies of pioneering women. Often biographies nudge the edge of fiction; there are simply too many gaps to fill. The biographer is forced to speculate and *imagine* how and what occurred; and then the implications and emotions connected etc etc.
    All history is subjective, and fiction - over the years- has been prone to censorship, dependant on times and fashions, and ultimately - if at all based on *fact* - an individual's view of events.
    In my view, fiction is fiction. We can write it how we want to tell it, the way we want to tell it. What defines the good, the great and the bad is more the to do with the way it is rendered than the adherence to pertinent detail. But that's me. I'd rather read a Good Story with compelling and convincing characters than a book bound in too much (turgid) historical detail. I'm not sure historians make good authors, and I'm quite sure that the authors of some great historical fiction never considered themselves to be historians.
    Historical fiction has to be accessible to the Twenty-first century reader...if it is to be read at all.

  3. Wonderful post Judith. I read both historical and non-fiction works. My gripe comes from works slotted as non-fcition which read like they should be fiction (one particular writer comes to mind, but being a good girl, I won't name names). If I review (which is rare) - I will state why I (meaning me alone) don't like something and why I do. Sometimes, my reviews are in agreement oft times they are not - but I guess it all boils down to personal taste (and how much history you've read!).

    Keep posting Judith!