No place for the muffins
Not just the Poor Bloody Infantry

A web for Queen Elizabeth

Yesterday in No place for the muffins I said that the scholarly endeavour is the opposite of the endeavour of fiction. It was another of those things I didn't know I thought till it appeared under my fingers, and I've been wondering since what, exactly, I meant.

Yes, it's true that in academic writing you have to show your working, make your theoretical position and reasoning clear, own up to your forerunners, credit any words/ideas/opinions that aren't your own. And no problem of punctuation in creative writing gives me as much grief as getting the commas right in the references. But that's just the housekeeping part of the job. It's actually surprisingly hard to make a watertight definition of the difference between writing history, and writing historical fiction. Both are about choosing and connecting facts into a web of imaginative narrative which helps the reader to understand and experience the past. The novelist is allowed larger imaginative leaps in connecting historical facts, but even we have to anchor our web to them. And, I realised today, with neither history nor fiction would the original characters have recognised the narrative we put them in, because you can only see the shape of a life - or an era - after it's over.

So what is the difference? I think it lies in not in our product - a story's a story, after all - but in our process. My cry to aspiring writers is, 'Write about what you can make me believe you know.' Whether it's love, or knitting, or the Old Kent Road, what people know they don't have to give references for, explain how they know it, or search for previous holders of that knowledge: it just is, in their consciousness. So the facts I root out for writing fiction with must, somehow, end up being in the book as un-selfconsciously as that. The world I create must seem as un-thought, as natural, as breathing.

To do this, as Rose Tremain says, 'You have to leave the research behind,' but I think there's more to it than that. The other evening I watched the Cate Blanchett movie of Elizabeth, and I can't wait to see the new Golden Age one. The political history's very inaccurate, I know, but I don't think it matters a jot. To my mind, if the point is to understand that world, the accuracy of the characters and the sense of the times - urgent, dangerous, brutal, idealistic - is just as important, and those the film gets triumphantly right. They're different truths from those of the historian, less pin-downable and proveable than Acts of Parliament or subsidies to the United Provinces, but they're truths nonetheless, and just as valuable. I'm sure it's not coincidental that the director had apparently not heard of Queen Elizabeth when he was sent the script. He was thus free, as a historian is not, to be inaccurate with some truths in order to be accurate in others, and in doing so, he showed us human history that we thought we all knew through wholly new eyes. That, surely, is what fiction is for.