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Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel

It seems to be Historical Fiction Autumn. The Historical Novel Society's Awards have had a good deal to do with that; I was one of the judges for their 2014 Short Story Award, and our comments on Anne Aylor's wonderful winning story, "The House of Wild Beasts", and on the two runners-up, are now up on the site. The HNS's website is also stuffed with great blogs and articles about everything to do with historical fiction.

Antonia Hodgson, whose debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea is very high indeed on my TBR pile since I heard her speak and read at the York Festival of Writing, is also editor-in-chief at Little, Brown. So she knows whereof she speaks as both writer and reader, because editors are, in a sense, the best readers there are: among other things, their careers depend on being as representative a reader as possible. This is her list of ten great historical novels. Read your way through that lot, and you really will have had an education in our business. If you look at one of the titles and can't believe such a bad book is there, try asking yourself why Antonia might think it's a good book.

The second ever Harrogate History Festival is coming: on 23rd-26th October, to be precise, everyone who loves writing and reading history and historical fiction will descend (ascend?) on Harrogate for a gathering of the Clan History. I was at Harrogate last year and blogged about it here, and this year's festival is even bigger: as CEO Sharon Canavar says, history is hot. I'll have the pleasure of chairing a discussion between Elizabeth Fremantle, and Suzannah Dunn: I'm reading Suzannah's The May Bride at the moment, and Liz's Sisters of Treason is next. Many of us are members of the Historical Writers Association, which also has a forum and a great online magazine, Galleria.

The Open University's New Historical Fiction Seminar series kicks off this month, and it's curated by Sally O'Reilly, author of Dark Aemilia. On Tuesday 18th November I'll be sharing the platform with Jerome de Groot, who is that rare thing, a literary scholar who's interesting in historical fiction as itself, and our seminar's called Experiments in the Past. We'll talking about where and how historical fiction can be experimental, complex, and fruitful for our creative process. And to help this, and my work on Get Started Writing in Historical Fiction for Hodder, I've made myself a bit of a reading list, looking specifically for the new and exciting in the genre; I'm hoping to blog here, every now and again, about what I've found.

 Ian Skillicorn and I are not the only judges commenting on what works in historical fiction: I've just come across some really fascinating notes from the judges of the HNS 2013 International Novel Award. Well, they're actually talking about their top three things that don't work, but not only do I agree with all of them, this point is one I hadn't quite thought of like this before, but it's absolutely spot on:

Descriptions of weather, landscape, feelings etc that we believe we have in common with people in other times can of course be appropriate within the heft of the novel, but at the outset we need to stress the things we do not share with our characters.

The "otherness" of historical lives and places is the central reason that we want to write and read them, and that's what will draw the reader firmly and quickly into the reality of this other world. Only once you've established that will the evocation of sameness be expressing anything worth saying. The judges' second point is one I've made myself:

At least half of the entries had prologues, and probably only 10 percent were enhanced in any way by them.

If you're wincing about your prologue, have a look at my post on that thorny subject to help you start thinking about whether you could do the same job a better way. And this, too, I something I recognise, both in others' work, and my own early thinking about a possible story:

...there isn’t anything intrinsically interesting about historical events in novelistic terms, and no writer hoping for success can afford to use history as a prop in this way.

But - but - but- you're saying. But, I'm saying, those judges are right. It doesn't work to use the label "novel" to sell what you want to say about the real history of an event or place: it's like trying to navigate with a lumping great magnet plonked next to your ship's compass. Your sense of what to say and how to say it will be pulled in two different ways, and the chances are you'll run aground on the sandbank between them. What's more, readers will rumble you, and feel preached-at or taught. Novels are about individual humans - characters-in-action - and the story of the novel is their story. If you want to write the story of the Battle of Waterloo, or a saga of the writing of Beowulf, then be honest and write non-fiction

Nor does it work to use the label "historical" to sell a story which is really a modern story of modern minds and hearts, in longer frocks, with bad teeth. That's not to say, of course, that historical fiction isn't of and about our lives: anything written now can't help being that. But, to go back to the judges' first point, the "otherness" of the minds and hearts you're writing must be central to our experience of the novel too. Otherwise, again, readers won't feel really "othered", if that's a word. And if they're not going to feel the friction of their 21st century selves experiencing to that time before they (and you) came to consciousness - if this isn't going to be about measuring the distance between Then and Now, so as to understand both a little better - then why on earth are you bothering to write it? And why should readers want to to read it?