Adventures in Writing a Historical Novel

Search “writing historical fiction” and the Internet will offer you numerous articles of advice.  When I decided years ago to use a young Geoffrey Chaucer as the protagonist of a series of historical mystery stories, I didn’t do any Internet searching, for two reasons. For one thing, it was over 20 years ago, and the World Wide Web was still in its infancy. The second reason was that I decided on the approach I wanted by asking myself some crucial questions.

 

The first, naturally, is simple: “How historically accurate do you want to be?”
In my case, having been through two degrees in medieval studies, historical accuracy was a sine qua non. I could not hold my head high if I inaccurately portrayed aspects of daily life. That meant collecting books on all aspects of the fourteenth century in England, including London architecture and archaeology, crime, religion, law, university curriculum, daily life, food (but I had those cookbooks already), farming, village/peasant life, and more.
There is an impressive Yale series on English Monarchs, and it took years of patient waiting before the volume on Edward III was published—necessary for the era of Chaucer’s youth. One of the features of these texts, besides the detailed examination of the actions and crises of each reign, was the section on where the king was during every day of his reign. Kings moved from estate to estate, and documents from the court are noted by date and location. For me, it meant that when Chaucer is with the king at Woodstock, or has to ride all the way to Hadleigh to find the king, I’m not just making it up.

 

This leads me to the second question: “How historically plausible do you want to be?”
If I mention details of daily life—recipes, clothes, streets walked, distance between towns, whereabouts of the king’s court, customs, etc.—it is important to me that the information is accurate. No one should ever say to a friend, based on something in one of my books, “In the Middle Ages they did thus and such…” and need to be fact-checked!
The actual actions of the characters in the books are all fiction, however. I cannot claim their actions are accurate, but I can strive to make their actions historically plausible, based on my best understanding of the person and the customs of that time.
For instance, here is a detail that is historically accurate: at the end of this phase of the Hundred Years War, Chaucer leaves France in October 1360, bound for England, bringing letters from the King and his sons to the Queen at the Tower of London. Chaucer’s “boss” Prince Lionel doesn’t return for another fortnight. So Chaucer has two weeks during which we do not know his activities; that’s when A Death in Catte Street takes place.
That reference to him delivering letters is the last mention of Chaucer in records for six years. What is he doing in that time? He must still be attached to the Crown. Scholars like to assume he gained much of his knowledge by studying at Oxford or Cambridge:  thus the setting of A Year in Oxford. There is also an assumption by some that he learned about law, and that is the backdrop for my third book (still in outline form), A Legacy in the Temple. (London’s Temple Inn was the law school.)
There’s a corollary to this idea of historical plausibility: “How carefully do you wish to avoid modern sensibilities?”
Too often we credit our “heroes” from the past with contemporary values. This is a dishonest approach to history.
It is probably safe to assume that human beings have experienced the same emotions for millennia. Love, fear, anger, jealousy, etc., are motivations for crime in any era. Still, people of different eras did not have the same cultural mindset we have. Will your plot turn on a point that only existed at that time? Or will you simply create a murder mystery that could take place any time over the past 3000 years?
In my case, I also want to educate the reader about the past.  A Death in Catte Street cannot be separated from the anti-Semitic history of medieval England. It takes the historically accurate expulsion of Jews from England and creates a historically plausible outcome. The deaths in A Year in Oxford are connected to metaphysical ideas that modern centuries would recognize as irrational but that could be considered a worthy experiment 650 years ago. One of my favorite passages in Catte Street was when Chaucer muses on the difference between male pages and valets and ladies-in-waiting. “Sexist” is not a concept that would mean anything in the fourteenth century; Chaucer really sees all women as different in temperament and actions from all men.
And, of course, “Should you keep a list of footnotes?”
I include a Notes section in my books so that readers can flip to the back and read more about a character or event, or even the use of an unfamiliar term. My first novel includes a reference to a criminal who was a real person convicted in fourteenth-century London. The documentation for this is in a book in my house—and for the life of me I cannot remember which book. It upsets me that I cannot find that reference so that I can footnote it.
Ultimately, you have to decide if the story you want to tell requires you to be faithful to history or faithful to the social and emotional themes you wish to present. The two, unfortunately, are not always compatible.
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the image of Prince Lionel is  By Unknown – see above, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17932345

the image of Oxford University in the fourteenth century is from https://www.historyhit.com/who-was-a-typical-oxford-student-in-the-fourteenth-century/

Other older images are from public domain or uncredited sources

 

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