Storming the conventions of Historical Fiction
By Derek Birks
I came late to writing historical fiction – in fact late to writing altogether.
History was what I knew best but there were a number of conventions associated with historical fiction that I did not like very much.
The idea of fictional history where one twisted the events and timeline to suit the story really didn’t appeal to me at all. The history was just too important to me. So if I was going to write historical fiction then whatever history I included would have to be as accurate as possible.
Another, equally important consideration on my mind was readership. When I started writing, historical fiction tended to fall into one of two categories: historical romance, often written by women for women, and historical action, often written by men for men. Now I know this was not exclusively the case but it was pretty much so, as is evidenced by the number of female writers who used only their initials when writing books with a lot of action in them to disguise the fact that they were women. Obviously the publishing premise was that none of us have the remotest idea about the opposite sex!
I found this convention rather irritating and I set out to write a book with three main protagonists: two women and one man. There would be plenty of action – no holds barred - but it wasn’t only the men who took part in it. There was some romance – in fact several love stories – but it was not the main theme.
Overall there were as many female characters as male since my observation is that there are a lot of both in the world.
There was another historical social convention I wanted to attack: the belief that women in the middle ages had no power, no influence and were simply there to have children. Now, whilst that might accurately represent the view of the medieval church, it is not in fact how life was. There were plenty of exceptions where women had considerable influence, ran their own businesses, and even commanded men. It seemed important to me that women were given a variety of roles in my stories: most conventional, but some not so conventional.
Finally, I wanted to challenge the notion of the lower classes only ever acting in a supporting role. There is a place in the story for the plucky, loyal servant who sacrifices himself in order that the hero can survive but they weren’t all like that! I included the usual suspects: servants, innkeepers, whores, blacksmiths, yes – but I wanted them to have their own stories too, interwoven with their social superiors rather than just acting as stereotypes.
I wanted therefore at least a little bit of social depth. How did the actions of the powerful impact on the lives of the not so powerful? I wanted subplots which dealt with their concerns – often very different from their masters. Some were loyal but others were grumpy and uncooperative despite - or because of - their lowly station in life. In fact the whole idea of characters being completely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ was something I was keen to move away from.
The period covered by my first book Feud, 1459-61, was by far the bloodiest time of the Wars of the Roses and I felt that the reader needed to grasp exactly what that meant, so there is full-on action in several battles. But there were also the effects of battles which are less frequently dealt with. At the time I was writing Feud, I was intrigued by the discovery of some skeletons near the site of the battle of Towton. In itself, I suppose, it is not that surprising to find some corpses near an old battlefield but it was one skeleton in particular that interested me. One of the corpses revealed that this particular soldier, though he died at Towton, had received a grievous facial injury at some time well before that. It set me to thinking about battlefield surgery and how injured combatants dealt with life afterwards.
The consequence of all my good intentions was that I ended up with a legion of characters. With hindsight I might have reduced the cast list a bit… but fortunately during the Wars of the Roses I could indulge in quite a few casualties…
The danger in writing a story to appeal to both sexes was that I would alienate all readers: perhaps there was not enough romance, or too much action, or simply too many characters! My antidote for all of that was to make the pace of the story as fast as possible with a lot of dialogue and very few lengthy descriptions. I wanted the reader to keep reading – to be prepared to wade through the carnage – or the tender embraces - to find out what happened to the characters next.
I am not suggesting that my series of books will appeal to everyone because I’m certain they will not – and that is as it should be. However, I have had enough direct contact with readers now – six years after I first published Feud – to be sure that, whatever flaws my debut novel had, it does have a lot of readers of both sexes who have enjoyed it.
Since I began writing - some ten to twelve years ago now – the face of historical fiction has changed as society has changed. But, more importantly, publishing has changed too. The books ‘out there’ for readers now are no longer channelled only through traditional publishing and so there is a much greater variety of stories and sub-genres available.
I’m not claiming here to have single-handedly broken any mould, just explaining what inspired me to write in the way I have. Now I am writing my seventh book and the principles I adopted at the start are still there – though hopefully my writing has improved over the years.
My sixth, and most recent, Wars of the Roses novel, The Blood of Princes, is set in one of the most turbulent years in the whole of English history – 1483. And yes, it deals with Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, but, like all the books which preceded it, it is a story of a family – its men, women, children, servants, men at arms, etc. thrust into a time of crisis and trying – each in their own way – to emerge from it unscathed. As the blurb tells you:
“… members of the battle-scarred Elder family are drawn, one by one, into his conspiracy. Soon they are mired so deep in the murky underbelly of London society, that there seems no hope of escape from the tangle of intrigue and murder.”
But don’t worry, they’re getting used to it…
The Blood of Princes
A savage tale of love, treason and betrayal.
A bloody struggle for power at the heart of the royal court.
In April 1483, the sudden death of King Edward IV brings his twelve year old son to the throne.
Restless young lord and ex-mercenary John Elder is newly-appointed to the service of Edward, Prince of Wales, and charged with the boy’s safety. His first task, escorting the new king to London for his coronation, seems a simple one but the accession of a boy king raises concerns among the leading noblemen of the land.
As old jealousies and feuds are rekindled, the new king’she kingdom
While John, outlawed and trapped, must wait to see how events unfold, other members of the battle-scarred Elder family are drawn, one by one, into his conspiracy. Soon they are mired so deep in the murky underbelly of London society, that there seems no hope of escape from the tangle of intrigue and murder.
In the end, all lives will hang upon the outcome of a daring incursion into the Tower of London itself.
Derek was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties. On his return to England, after eight years abroad, he read history at Reading University.
As long as he can remember, Derek has loved books and he always wanted to write. By the age of 17, he was writing stories, songs, poetry – in fact virtually anything. Inevitably, after university, work and family life took precedence and for many years he taught history in a secondary school. Though he enjoyed teaching immensely, he also found a creative outlet in theatrical activities: stage-managing musicals and outdoor Shakespeare, including a performance of Henry VIII for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977 at Windsor Castle.
In 2010 Derek took early retirement to concentrate on writing. He aims to write action-packed fiction, rooted in accurate history. Though he is interested in everything historical, his particular favourite is the late medieval period. So far he has completed one 4-book series, entitled Rebels and Brothers, which is set during the Wars of the Roses and he is now midway through another Wars of the Roses series: The Craft of Kings which began with Scars from the Past.
Historical Novel Society review of Scars from the Past
Apart from his writing, he enjoys travelling – often to carry out research for his books - and also spends his time gardening, walking and taking part in archaeological digs.
Derik loves to hear from readers, you can find him: Website • Blog • Amazon Author Page • Facebook • Twitter.