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Characters in Historical Fiction: The 2016 Triskele Litfest Panel on Historical Fiction

I'm pleased to welcome Jane Davis to the blog today with some highlights from the Historical Fiction panel at this year's Triskele Litfest. In this extract, the panellists discuss creating characters in historical fiction...

At this year’s Triskele Litfest, author Jane Davis chaired a fascinating discussion on historical fiction. The panellists were Jane Dixon-Smith (The Better of Two Men, third-century Syria); Orna Ross (Her Secret Rose, the first in a trilogy about the poet WB Yeats); Radhika Swarup (Where the River Parts, the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947); and Alison Morton (Aurelia, a Roman-themed alternative history thriller). The panellists revealed why they had chosen to write about their particular eras, and discussed issues around defining historical fiction, language and setting.

In this extract from Jane’s transcript of the debate they talk about characterisation:-

Chair: I want to ask how you go about blending real-life characters with fictional characters. I’m told that the key advantage of including fictional characters in a novel that includes real-life figures is the ability to bump them off without altering history. Would you agree, or do they serve another purpose? Orna, can I ask you first because I know you’ve done this in Her Secret Rose.

Orna: Actually, Rosie’s an invented character but she’s based on a real person. I tried to tell the story in lots of different ways but because it’s W B Yeats for God’s sake! I was in awe of W B Yeats, was intimidated until I got Rosie’s voice. I based her on the letters of a woman who was imprisoned with Maud Gonne for her revolutionary activities, and her irreverent thoughts, the way that she spoke, allowed me to say what I liked.

Radhika: My main characters are all invented and I think they are so key because it allows you to paint such big key events in Indian and Pakistan history from an intimacy. There’s no other way to take that canvas and reduce it.

Jane D-S: My narrator was initially fictional until I realised that he could actually be a character who existed, so I changed his name to Zabdas, tweaked him a bit, and then carried on from there. In the books, he is actually meant to be Zenobia’s half-brother, but he wasn’t Zenobia’s half-brother as far as we know.

Chair: One of the interesting things about writing historical fiction is that, if the reader has knowledge of the era, they have the benefit of hindsight, while the characters in the book don’t. How do you use this to your advantage?

Radhika: A lot of my research comes from accounts from family members who are approaching their nineties, so I don’t know with what vividness they remember, but I also used archives and third party accounts. What I have is evidence from afterwards, whether Partition was justified or not, so while I will never have the immediacy of people who lived through Partition, I have the benefit of hindsight.

From left to right: Jane Davis, Orna Ross, Radhika Swarup, Jane Dixon-Smith and Alison Morton
Jane D-S: Not a lot of people know about Zenobia so I tend to find that people pick up the books look on-line to see if she was real and are surprised.

Alison: Historical fiction can often spark interest in history. Although mine is alternate history, I try to keep it very Roman in terms of culture and values, but I have had readers come back to me and say, ‘It’s actually made me go back and re-look at Rome.’
Orna: When you’re interested you do want other people to share your interest, but I wish I had thought about your question before I wrote these books because writing about someone who ‘s as loved and revered as W B Yeats is actually dangerous. I’ve had hate mail. I stepped into a nest of academics. They own Yeats and they definitely didn’t like my take on him.

Chair: I was criticised for a historical novel I wrote where I allowed a main character to leave her son without showing enough regret, the difficulty being that it was out of step with the modern mind-set. Today we expect a mother to put her child before partners, husbands, etc. I wonder how you perceive the temptation to superimpose contemporary values on historical characters.

Alison: One thing if you’re writing a pure historical novel is to read the letters and diaries of people, not the historical account, but what people actually did. I would always go to a source if I could find one about people and their lives.

Chair: Letters and diaries were your source material, Orna.

Orna: A lot of private writing that has only recently become public and a lot of writing that only came out of copyright. It’s just seventy years gone, so I was able to use it.

Radhika: But struggled when I came to the writing. My protagonist is, for her generation, an extremely feisty woman. She chooses for her lover, she chooses her husband, but she still has constraints placed on her by societal conventions. So she has to be courted, she has to be proposed to. In fact, she doesn’t have to be proposed to. Her father has to be approached by her suitor.

Jane D-S: Fortunately writing Roman history, it’s turned on its head from a female point of view. I had the advantage of Zenobia doing things we would want women to do today. She rode with the men, she did all of those things that appeals to readers these days. I didn’t have any trouble trying to pull the story into the modern. It already felt modern anyway.

Orna: When I went back to the writings of women in Ireland in the 1910s and1920s, I felt like I was meeting myself and my friends on the page. They had written and done exactly the kind of work that we were doing in the 1970s and 80s, then it had gone onto a shelf and no one had looked at it for fifty years. Our generation had to come along as if they had never existed. The feminists of our time have reclaimed their work and put it out there, but we have this idea that women’s advancement is up, up, up, that leads to today when we are supposedly equal. Actually, if you look back you’ll see it’s more up and down. I’m hoping digital will put an end to that.

Alison: Even when putting women in men’s roles, you still have to keep within the convention of your story. Like with Zenobia, there are some things she couldn’t do and some things she could do but didn’t want to do.

Or view it on YouTube. (The other videos can be found on the YouTube channel:

Find out more about the panellists:-

About Jane Davis

Jane Davis is the author of seven thought-provoking novels. Her debut, Half-truths and White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award and was described by Joanne Harris as ‘A story of secrets, lies, grief and, ultimately, redemption, charmingly handled by this very promising new writer.’ The Bookseller featured her in their ‘One to Watch’ section. Six further novels have earned her a loyal fan base and comparisons to more seasoned authors such as Kate Atkinson and Maggie O’Farrell. An Unknown Woman has been named Self-Published Book of the Year 2016 by Writing Magazine and the DSJT Charitable Trust. Jane’s favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Her historical novels include I Stopped Time and My Counterfeit Self. She can be also be hired as a tutor, mentor and professional speaker.

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