Tuesday, 24 February 2009

My reasons for writing a historical novel

I have occasionally been asked why I, as a historian, chose to write fiction rather than continue to write factual history. I can give you four personal reasons why I chose this path.

First, I’m not sure whether many historians are not occasionally stricken by the yearning to bend the facts of history, but if this does happen I presume the pricking of a guilty conscience immediately calls them to order. Playing according to scholastic rules means writing history as objectively as possible and that kind of approach conjures up a kind of straightjacket. This objectivity rejecting any personal slant is the norm of any historian. Tempting your fingers to type out a subjective historical interpretation would obviously mean betraying the ethical code of professional conduct. While writing my previous two history books I occasionally felt those twinges to slightly play down historical objectivity at certain dubious points but nevertheless I made a constant effort to demand the hallowed objectivity of myself when donning my historian’s hat. However, I promised myself that one day I would indulge and enter the channel of historical fiction.
Oh, to create a historical novel – some kind of counterfactual history.

My second reason for writing a historical novel is what I call the ‘black hole of history’. Allow me to explain. What bothers me about history is what we don’t know; I’m specifically referring to the black holes of knowledge. Being a historian I’m constantly aware of the fact that the sources we do have available do not tell the whole tale. Take the history of the Middle Ages, is it really all about the tug-of-war between royalty, aristocracy and church? Where are the masses, what did they really think and prioritorise? Were they as religious as we’re made to believe by the sources describing the rise of the Gothic churches. After all, we certainly know who wrote this information or disinformation: it was a wafer-thin stratum of highly motivated literate churchmen who had the monopoly on the media and a definite agenda. In the seventh century, the largest and greatest repository of human knowledge – the library at Alexandria – was burnt down. The ashes of those scrolls contained virtually the entire repository of extant sources of human knowledge till that time. The flames devoured most of everything known to those times – unimaginable assets of information written on parchment and vellum scrolls which had no backup or microfilms. This example of what I call the ‘black hole of knowledge’ leads me to the conclusion that how ever much we may read and assess from sources about the world leading up to the seventh century, we can never get anywhere near the real picture. Hence, in steps the writer of historical fiction: imagination and fictitious writing might well fill these black holes with plausible historical suppositions.

My third reason for writing historical fiction concerns the priority or hierarchy of the importance of information. For instance, not too many people are aware of the fact that between the years 1918 to 1920, the pandemic of influenza wiped out close to fifty million people across the globe. Very little has been written about this extraordinary catastrophe – why? The answer is simple: the Great War, the First World War, overshadowed all else. Another instance of the ordering of events: editors of newspapers and other media receiving thousands of bits (and don’t forget the bites) of info each day; they – human beings – decide what is considered newsworthy, what we, the reading public, should imbibe and not read, and more to the point, in what order of preference and importance we should make our acquaintance with the information. Needless to say, the overriding mass of accumulated information is, of course, thrown into the dustbin – indeed, the dustbin of history. But what has been thrown into the dustbin of history? That is only left to the imagination. Hence, why shouldn’t I play my part by endeavoring to pick up some of those scraps and process them into a novel? I hope you’ve caught my drift.

My fourth and last reason for writing historical fiction relates to my sense of historical awareness. I tend to read news and assess events in a historical framework. I consider and weigh up the impact of contemporary events and fit them into a strategically geo-political framework. I don’t automatically accept the editor’s priortisation and intuitively see the tapestry of contemporary history unfolding before my eyes. Genocide in Darfur, ethnic clashes in India, the rising temperature at the polar caps, the clashes in the Middle East, Basque terrorism, radical Islam, speeches by the Pope – are all equally important at first, only gradually, with foresight and hindsight, perspective and moderation can anyone fit the pieces of human interaction in any digestible formation. What we see, hear, and perceive is the very stuff of history. And so this personal experience provides me with facts and imaginary scenarios that can be wielded into a thousand stories.


So these are the four points constantly swimming around in the aquarium of my historical mind: the yen to bend history, how to relate to the black hole of missing information, the dictated information hierarchy and agenda, and taking into account my acute awareness of living history. These elements are the building stones for my historical alibi to burst the seams of the straightjacket of historical objectivity and write my novel, God’s Elect.

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