Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Today is tomorrow's yesterday

A big part of my output so far as an author has been historical fiction and this is no doubt due in part to my enjoyment as a child of the work of Rosemary Sutcliffe and Henry Treece and of their illustrator, Charles Keeping. And I still enjoy historical fiction - as a writer and a reader (and a movie-goer).

Historical fiction is a strange genre though. In children's fiction there always seems to be an element of worthiness about it - as if somehow you are not only getting the children to read a novel, but also getting some historical facts down them by stealth. And now there seesm to be a spate of writers of historical non-fiction turning to novels.

For me, historical fiction is fiction, first and foremost. It has to work as a story, regardless of any percieved benefit in terms of helping to understand WWII or the Romans. That is not to say that I do not spend a lot of time on research and that I think I have a responsibility to get things right, but just that I am not convinced that we can really get an insight into another age through historical fiction.

Historical fiction often seems to say as much about the time it was written as when it is set. It is a little like science fiction in that regard. Just as the various future worlds of science fiction are often commentaries on the world of the writer, so historical fiction reflects the contemporary world by all the differences (and similiarities) to it.

The problem with historical fiction is that it can pretend to be 'true', or at least take upon itself a mantel of added authenticity because of the factual details. But it can only ever be partially true. I write historical fiction because the past, and the way we relate to it, fascinates me. Setting is important to me, and for children's books, a historical setting throws up all kinds of possibilities in terms of the narrative. I think it can also help to personalise an historical event or era and make it seem more real. It can also bring a valuable new perspective to the present.

But history is more complex and our knowledge of it more full of holes than fiction - certainly children's fiction - easily allows for. At the end of the day it is the author's job to make the story compelling. Historical or not, it is still fiction. And there is nothing wrong with that.

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