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S. W. Perry

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Writing historical fiction

Monday 12th October 2020

Being a writer of historical fiction is a little like being David Blaine or Derren Brown, only without the vast pay check and the hidden assistants. One has to be good at performing illusions, at playing harmless – but hopefully entertaining - tricks. That’s because the past isn’t only a foreign country, it’s a foreign language, a foreign philosophy, a place where very little would be familiar to us, even if we think we know it well.

     Today, if we could somehow have a conversation with an Elizabethan resident of Bankside, the London setting at the heart of my Jackdaw series of novels, we would find it hard to understand a lot of what they were saying to us. When, in Henry IV, Shakespeare has Falstaff say “Thou dost give me flatt’ring busses,” he’s not being given the keys to a big, red, London double-decker, he’s being given kisses. Something that was mechanical wasn’t made of cogs or levers, it was common or vulgar. If you had the misfortune to be incontinent, you needed not a dose of Imodium, but self-control.

     Then there’s the overwhelming influence of faith. Religion was a fundamental part of every waking moment. For just about everyone, heaven and hell were unquestionable realties. God’s grace would get you to the former; sin – and believing in the wrong faith - to the latter. Almost no one would admit to being an atheist or an agnostic. Ghosts were unquestionably real, too; as was the devil, who could disguise himself in all manner of ways.

     One of the hardest tasks in writing historical fiction is to convince your reader that your characters are speaking in the moment, using everyday conversational language. Any cod-Shakespeare in the dialogue and it quickly becomes laughable. But too modern, and the anachronisms will jar. A character in Elizabethan London cannot ever be mesmerised by something, because Anton Mesmer, the forerunner of hypnotism, wasn’t born until 1734.

     In reality, the author’s task is to tell a modern story that has meaning for a contemporary reader, cleverly disguised by well-painted stage scenery, a considerable amount of imaginative sleight-of-hand, not to mention some judicious use of smoke and mirrors. But get it right, and the payoff is that the reader will suspend their disbelief and join you willingly in the world that you’ve been inhabiting since first you started plotting the story – even if it is set in 1590.


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