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Historical Fiction | Masterclass 2


Masterclasses from the 2005 London Book Fair

The Masterclass on Historical Fiction at the London Book Fair involved two of the most successful authors in the genre, Bernard Cornwall, author of the Sharpe novels and the Arthurian trilogy, and Philippa Gregory, who first made her name in the field with A Respectable Trade and has more recently written a series of Tudor novels.

The writers started with describing what had got them started on writing historical fiction. Bernard said: ‘A lot of people want to be writers but it takes a bomb in your life to get you started’. In his case he followed his wife Judy to the States but then turned to writing because it was the only thing he could do without a green card. Since he feels that: ‘We all write what we want to read’, he turned to historical fiction because as a kid he had adored Hornblower.

Philippa said she had read two hundred nineteenth century novels to get her started but originally she hadn’t even realised that the genre existed.

In describing their relationship to real history, both writers had some interesting things to say. Bernard’s approach was that ‘the little story is in the foreground, the big story in the background’ but he also said: ‘I don’t stick rigidly to facts because history can be very inconvenient’ but nonetheless historical fiction is ‘a gateway to history… a way into history and you can’t do that if you don’t respect history’.

Philippa’s view on this was that ‘when you start research for a novel, you see events as the backbone of the novel... what you can’t do is shift it or avoid it.’ Writing contemporary fiction is easier, ‘when you are writing historical fiction you have to deal with existing facts… every single reader knows how the story ends’ but even so you often know only the bare bones and capturing the historical characters ‘is a work of the imagination’.

Both writers agreed on the importance of research, although Philippa said she was inclined to do it before she starts writing. Sometimes it will turn up ideas – her first encounter with Mary Boleyn was coming across the name of a ship called after her – and being inspired to find out why. Bernard pointed out that Charles O’Neill’s account of Waterloo is still quoted, even though it is now known that he wasn’t even there.

Bernard felt that ‘there comes a time when you have to stop researching and start writing’. When working on the first book of his Arthur trilogy he had set aside 6 months for research, but was bored stiff after just two months and decided to write one chapter to try out a first person narrator. In no time at all, the book was written.

The question of what language to use led on to an interesting discussion. Bernard said he had found this very tricky. Sharpe for instance would have used a lot of bad language. The further back in history you went the more difficult it was and he tended to aim for ‘dialogue which would not put anything in your way’. Philippa had decided from the beginning not to use dialect or ‘historical’ speech, what she called the ‘lord’s a’ mercy school’.

Both writers mentioned how much they enjoyed writing historical fiction. Bernard said: ‘How lucky can we be. I don’t have a problem, I have pleasure after pleasure… I’m the luckiest person alive.’


Masterclass 1: How to get published