Historical Teen Novels: Fact, Fiction And Friction, by Pauline Francis
I never planned to write historical fiction. Sometimes, I try to argue that I don’t. I’d rather say that I was a writer of timeless novels – but that might be confusing because all my novels are set in the sixteenth century – in the Tudor period.
So – what do I mean?
Writers of historical fiction fall into two categories. Those who are passionate about history (and want to ‘teach’ readers about history through fiction), and those who use history as a catalyst for their own imagination. I belong to the second category.
I’ve written two historical teen novels based on English Queens: Raven Queen about Lady Jane Grey, who ruled England for nine unhappy days, and Traitor’s Kiss about Elizabeth I who ruled England for forty-four glorious years. I chose two Tudor women because their characters appealed to me for reasons I’ll tell you in the next post.
Readers tell me that I have an unusual approach to historical fiction. My view about historical detail is this: if I was writing contemporary fiction, I’d only put in as much contemporary detail as the book needed. I wouldn’t overload it with every detail of a character’s clothing or hair style or car. I’d use just enough to paint the picture I wanted. So why should historical fiction be any different? My characters are just people, like you and me. They have the same hopes and dreams and ambitions, so why overload my writing with details of embroidered sleeves and cloaks and jewellery? I want you to know how my characters reacted to dangerous situations, not what they were wearing when they did it – unless it’s important for some reason. At the end of Traitor’s Kiss, clothing is important, but only in a scene where Elizabeth has to make a difficult decision, and to do this, she decides to dress in a certain way so that her interrogators (who could send her to the Tower of London) are reminded that she might be Queen one day.
But I do feel a responsibility to historical truth. My novels are set in specific times and events, so I am always faithful to them. I research my books very accurately, even if I don’t include much historical detail. It’s the characters who attract me in the first place and historical detail comes second. There is an important event in each of these novels – a real event – which endangers my characters.
How much fiction do you include in a historical novel? Every writer is different. As I write about real people as my main characters, I include many as fictional ones as I need. Logically, all events connected with fictional characters are fictional too, so that the reader knows where fact and fiction separate. In Raven Queen, I decided to give Lady Jane Grey a fictional friend called Ned. He is one of the narrators of the novel. One publisher turned down my novel, outraged that I’d dared to meddle with history – hence the friction. But others loved it. It was published and won awards.
I’ve spent a great deal of time justifying Ned, but I’ve never regretted my decision. Why did I do it? Jane has always been portrayed as a prim intellectual and a fanatical Protestant. Her parents didn’t seem to like her very much. I thought she deserved to be given a warmer side to her nature, and when I came across a line of research that she’d rather fancied the boy next door… (well, the boy on the next huge estate in the Midlands) I wanted my readers to know that side of her. After all, she was just a girl of fourteen.
I choose to use other historical facts only to build interest and tension. Hair is very important in my novels. Not only did it prove birthright (Jane’s was the Tudor red-gold, as was Elizabeth’s illegitimate half-brother), it was the sixteenth century tradition for unmarried women to wear their hair loose (the longer it was, the better a sign of fertility) and hidden when safely married.
There is a huge problem when writing about real historical people. Most readers (well, ones who have studied these people in history) will know what happened before they read the book. So I give a twist to the ending that is fictional because it’s based on a fictional character. It’s Ned who provides the gut-wrenching twist in Raven Queen and made my editor cry on the subway when she was reading the manuscript.
That’s my approach to historical fiction.
Next time, I’ll tell you how I chose my characters.
Paulines Francis’s author website: www.paulinefrancis.co.uk
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