I've just had the very great pleasure of chairing the judges for the Historical Writers' Association Debut Crown Prize. Along with former winner Ben Fergusson, book bloggers Ayo Onatade and Susan Heads, and novelist and journalist Sunny Singh, we had the task of reading something like 36 debut historical novels. And as we wrangled our way from a longlist to a shortlist, I was reminded of how historical fiction presents any writer with some of the biggest writerly challenges of all. So it's genuinely remarkable how the best of what we'd read - all debuts, after all - met those challenges.
So, why might a writer, specifically, want to read each of the shortlisted books? It's not that they're all perfect in every possible way - there's no such thing of any novel, still less anyone's first novel, after all. But each does demonstrate something that, if you're learning to write any kind of fiction, is well worth learning. I do suggest, too, that when you read you close-read: don't go whizzing on but get detailed with yourself about what words, exactly, are creating the effect I describe. And if you disagree with me, why? What might I be liking that you don't, or vice versa? Learning to read like a writer is essential to your craft, but learning to read like other readers is a useful next stage.
Emily Bitto – The Strays A radical artist and his family challenge conservative 1930s Australia, but in this limpidly written story the repercussions travel down the generations.
Why a writer should read it: The prose is that quiet, pitch-perfect sort which I think of as "supple". Without ever being over-rich or aggressively plain, it just always has the right words, rhythm, stress and slack for the story that Bitto is trying to tell, and for the eyes of the narrator through which she is trying to tell it.
Sarah Day – Mussolini’s Island A beautifully-told story of love, betrayal and survival in a strange and moving episode in Italian history.
Why a writer should read it It's based on a fascinating unknown corner of real history, but I mean it as a compliment when I say that it never reads like that: both settings and characters feel fully imagined and inhabited and their story becomes vivid and painful. And the writing is evocative and considered, without ever becoming over-egged or over-explain-y.
Martin Holmén – Clinch Chandler in reverse, with the protagonist the alleged criminal in a compelling 1930s Scandinavian-noir whodunnit.
Why a writer should read it: A terrific example of how to take an established sub-genre - the hardboiled noir crime story - and reinvent it with a new setting (at least to non-Scandi readers) and a new angle on classic tropes. Everything is very confidently handled, not least the considerable violence, without ever slipping into over-explaining the historical setting or social dynamics.
Abir Mukherjee – A Rising Man Delightful and splendidly-written whodunnit set in and beyond the Raj in the historical pivot-point of 1920s Calcutta.
Why a writer should read it: A very different re-inventing of a classic sub-genre, this time shedding a very precise historical light which challenges many received ideas of the Raj. It sets up the characters and tropes without which no classical whodunnit is complete, but does it in a contemporary voice and with comedy, verve, feeling and real narrative tension.
James Terry – The Solitary Woman of Shakespeare Gold rush Indian Territory becomes the Forest of Arden in this very funny but also subtle story of one woman’s determination to shape her life.
Why a writer should read it: Even to American readers the premise must be delightfully fresh, but the perfectly-pitched comic narrative voice is never at the expense of feeling, nor of good writing: the setting is beautifully evoked and the characters' story, though made confidently ridiculous at times, is genuinely touching.
Beth Underdown – The Witchfinder’s Sister An enormously compelling and deftly-told story set at the heart of the great Essex witchhunts.
Why a writer should read it: This brilliantly pulls off the difficult feat of centring a story on a protagonist who, as a woman of her time, can have very little agency. There's real narrative tension despite this, and the voice is spot on too: unobtrusively historical so it evokes the time without ever seeming effortful or self-conscious.
One final, general thought. A word which kept coming up as I was writing this post was "confident", and I've been trying to work out what is that makes all these novels feel so confident, when they're very different in so many ways.
- Trusting the reader: not nervously putting in explanations - explicit or implicit - of unfamiliar historical situations, settings, manners or mores. Also trusting the reader to stay with you for more lyrical and evocative passages which aren't obviously pushing the plot onwards.
- Being willing to go for it: not pulling any punches, whether they're physical (plenty of punches in Clinch) or emotional (betrayals in Mussolini's Island), or in storytelling terms (holding to genre-rules in A Rising Man).
- Finding a voice: one which is consistent in its relationship to the real written and spoken voices of history, as well as right for the novel in a general way, and then sticking to it.
- Not trying to be too many things at once: being wholehearted about what the novel wants to be, and not trying to cover more bases. It's wholeheartedness that raises a genre convention to become a satisfying trope, and refuses to tidy up a complex emotional dynamic into pop-psychology, but lets it stay complex and partly inexplicable.