In the latest issue of the Historical Novels Review, former lecturer in history Tristram Hunt is quoted as saying ‘there is a dangerous tendency among historians to slide into historical fiction, which must be avoided at all costs.’
He is said to be 'bored and appalled' by 'the relentless focus on detail which provides the authenticity.'
As a historian who also writes historical fiction, obviously I don’t agree with Dr Hunt’s proposed blanket ban on historians becoming novelists. But I do think he might have a point about the ‘relentless focus on detail.'
Long factual descriptions of what people wore, what they ate, how they furnished their rooms, do not on their own create a sense of time and place. Yes, the writer needs to know enough about these things to avoid glaring anachronisms, but most of them have no place in the novel.
In a contemporary novel, a writer would not devote paragraphs to describing how a character prepared breakfast, got dressed, travelled to work. So why do it in historical fiction?
If the hero, on his way to work, steps into the path of a hansom cab because he’s preoccupied by whatever predicament the author has placed him in, the reader wants to know how he reacts to the cabbie shouting and swearing at him, whether he feels shaken by his narrow escape as he continues his journey. The reader does not need a precise description of the cab that nearly ran our hero down.
Don’t describe in minute detail the home of a well to do tradesman. Show the girl whose job it is to clean the hearth and polish the pewter.
Don’t give a stitch by stitch description of the ball gown. Describe the seventeen year old girl who is dressing for her first ball.
Don’t write at length about how crowded, noisy and dirty London was in whatever era the story takes place. Show the reactions of the young woman from a provincial town who is experiencing it for the first time.
Fiction, of whatever genre, is, or should be, about the characters, the challenges they face, and how they deal with those challenges, not about the setting - unless, of course, the setting is the challenge.
Some historians overlook the people in their non-fiction work. They provide tables of population growth, of economic growth, of imports and exports. They write about great religious or political movements. They seem to forget that driving all these events are individuals, all with their own fears, secrets, ambitions and achievements.
They are the historians who should not be writing fiction.