History and invention

I have always been terrified of attempting to write fiction. Fiction’s what real writers write; people who can think of plots and characters and don’t need to hide behind facts. Apart from doubting my ability to invent things – which is a good deficiency for historians to have, surely? – I assumed that fiction would be too personal. The Q and A sessions at the end are often the best bits of any speaking engagement, but I find myself a little bewildered by questions about me: how do I work, why do I write, what does my family think, who inspired me, and so on (so why does she indulge herself in a blog, I hear you mutter; she’s a solipsistic hypocrite…) But it’s true: in a professional capacity I shy away from talking about my role as an author, preferring instead to concentrate on my subject. The people I write about are genuinely so much more interesting than I am. That’s why I write about them.

What I have failed to appreciate all these years is that writing fiction doesn’t necessarily involve writing about yourself. I mean it probably does on a subliminal level – of course it does – but if you are a novelist it doesn’t follow that you have nowhere to hide. I hide behind history at the moment; if I were a novelist I could hide behind invention. Think how liberating that idea is, especially to those of us with a responsibility to get things right, and to do our best by other people (alive or dead). There is no ‘right’ when you’re a novelist. There is only truth, and that’s a movable feast. How tempting is that?

So: I’ve decided that while I wait in agitated trepidation for the first editorial responses to come in about the illegitimacy book, I’ll try teaching myself to let go of fact and have a go at fiction instead. I’ll just write a couple of thousand words a day, say, and see what emerges. Surely that’ll do me good, both in a mechanical sense – to stop me rusting, as I suggested in my previous blog – and creatively. But what then? What part does creativity play in non-fiction? Especially history? This is dangerous ground, I feel. But sometimes, danger’s good.

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4 thoughts on “History and invention

  1. Oooh exciting! Of course the historian’s retort would be, why bother with fiction when we have so many true stories at our disposal? I am currently writing some fictional chapters at the end of my (history) book. They are based on some fact, but are about incidents where the information is very limited. I’ve found the whole thing really liberating and it’s made me reconsider what ‘fact’ actually is and how best we understand history – through fact or feeling. All the best with the new adventure!

  2. What is history but a story anyway? One we claim to be based on facts and evidence.
    Different people will have different versions of history. Memory is faulty, after all, and facts can be changed.
    If it’s true that the winner writes history, then what we know is the story told from the viewpoint of the one who came out on top.
    As someone who studied history, I know all too well the feeling of wanting everything to be based on evidence and facts. On truth. It took me a while to realize that truth is as fluid as history. It just depends on who is talking.
    Thomas King’s “The Truth About Stories” is a great inspiration for a switch from Historical non-fiction to fiction. It has certainly been a great help for me. Good luck with writing!

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