It’s my pleasure to introduce Margaret Frazer, author of seventeen novels in the Dame Frevisse series of history mysteries, six novels in the Joliffe the Player series, and fourteen short stories. Winter Heart, a Dame Frevisse story, was just released for e-sale on May 15, while A Play of Piety is the latest in the Joliffe series.
Margaret’s work is noted for being “Finely plotted and subtly shaded . . . .” (Publishers Weekly), with “… elegant writing, fascinating psychology …” (Booked & Printed) and “… accurate period detail, adroit characterization and lively dialogue …” (Publishers Weekly).
Historical or ? by Margaret Frazer, Guest Blogger
The year is 1470. There is rivalry for power between Warwick the Kingmaker and the man he has made king. Among the innocent people swept up in the royal quarrel is the inventor of a steam-powered engine, first of its kind, but the king’s evil brother Richard, duke of Gloucester, single-handedly sets back the Industrial Revolution hundreds of years by destroying inventor and invention.
I didn’t make that up. It’s part of the plot of a published historical novel. Not an alternative history novel. A historical novel because — never mind the steam engine — it’s set in an established past.
Which brings us to that ever-popular debate: Does it matter whether a novel, called historical, is historical or not?
For many people, historical accuracy is beside the point, so long as the story is good. That’s fair enough; I’m perfectly willing to enjoy a strong story on any terms its author wants to set. But (you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?) I think it’s supremely unfair to those authors who strive mightily for accuracy about their story’s time period and the people in it, to casually lump their work with that of authors who choose not to.
Yes, we’re writing fiction and therefore can do whatever we want. But (you knew there was another “but” coming, right?) if authors play fast and loose with reality, ignoring facts when they choose to, then what they are writing is historical fantasy fiction. If a nun sets out on a dangerous secret mission armed with an oaken staff and no companions except two dogs, that’s historical fantasy fiction (and Girl’s Own Adventure Novel into the bargain). If a medieval palace has doors to private rooms opening off long hallways as if in a 19th century country house, allowing characters to have private confrontations with ease whenever the plot requires it, that’s historical fantasy. If Princess Elizabeth visits her dying brother when we know very certainly she did not, that’s historical fantasy. If an author has a queen take sanctuary in the crypt of a church when we know from the records she took refuge in the comfortable, rich lodgings of the abbot (but a crypt is so much more dramatic), that’s historical fantasy.
In short, it seems to me that if a story is set in a specific historical time and place, and the author changes or ignores the reality of that time — switches the order of major events, telescopes into a shorter time span events that took place over many years, puts people somewhere when they are known to have been somewhere else, gives characters modern attitudes that would never have crossed their minds in their own time – then the story has become historical fantasy
The time and effort I have put into thoroughly learning about a time and place – and then remaining true to it through all my novels – have probably made me a tad over-sensitive about such tossing aside of facts by other authors, but in my own novels and short stories, I’ve found that adhering to history makes for enriching complexities and insights the stories would otherwise have lacked. In the most recent of my short stories, Winter Heart, by keeping within the realities of village life, medieval law, and religious rule, I ended with a story far more focused and intense than if I’d ignored a few things here and there for my convenience. In the novel A Play of Piety, shaping the story around the actual practices of a medieval hospital made for a far more layered plot than if I’d gone the easier route of clichés and cheap thrills.
I suppose I come down in the middle of the on-going debate. Of course authors can sport with historical facts if they want to, and readers can choose not to mind, but those books should be recognized for what they are – not historical novels but historical fantasy novels.
Of the faux-historical examples given above, all exist in recently published novels except for the first one. It’s from Last of the Barons by Edward Bulwer Lytton. You know – the “It was a dark and stormy night” man.
Thanks so much for being my guest today, Margaret. Although I’ve read historical fantasy and enjoyed it, I agree that historical accuracy makes a big difference in how I view the novel and its author. Research takes a lot of time and effort, and as a reader, I respect the author who does the job well.