The challenge of “true” historical fiction by Lisa Yarde

Posted by on Mar 3, 2014 in Historical Fiction Influences, Historical Research, Muslim Societies, Uncategorized | 1 comment

Sultana_TBP_KindleA novel with main characters based on historical figures presents a set of challenges to authors. History gives the principals who influenced and affected the course of events, but propaganda and poor record-keeping can alter impressions. Research provides information about particular incidents in the lives of historical figures. Yet, biases of the contemporaries who wrote about events of the past inform beliefs and misconceptions. Concrete or likely dates during which these experiences occurred are only obtainable if accurate records exist. History also offers a summation of the consequences, although informed by biases. For those characters who have not or could not leave written accounts, it’s up to authors to provide motive for happenings, but the reasoning can remain inexplicable to even the most logical examination. When writers ascribe certain ideals to their historical characters, putting words into the mouths of those who never said them, the risk rises for creating an inaccurate perception about the past and those who shaped it. How can authors write a “true” account that reflects the lives and spirits of those historical figures chosen as main characters? The short answer is it is practically impossible.

Despite these difficulties, I have devoted twenty years to studying and writing about characters who lived during the medieval period. My forthcoming novel, Sultana: The Bride Price is the fourth book in a series set in fourteenth-century Moorish Spain. The novel closely follows details in the turbulent life of the ruler of Granada Sultan Muhammad V, and his wife, who was also a paternal first cousin. The couple married to seal a breach within their family caused by the preceding generation. Muhammad’s father Yusuf had accused his brother Ismail of treason and imprisoned him at least a decade before the marriage occurred. Despite the arrival of the eventual heir, the union never ensured happiness or led to stability within the kingdom. Instead, lingering jealousies between Yusuf’s two widows, Muhammad’s mother Butayna and her rival Maryam precipitated a coup in August 1359. Muhammad lost his kingdom and his wife, entering exile in North Africa for some years. Discover whether he regained both when Sultana: The Bride Price makes its debut.

The first obstacle for authors to overcome in writing about real people is to recognize that certain details of bygone lives will remain a mystery. In particular, the reasoning behind the choices they made, but at times, even mundane facts remain elusive. For instance, primary sources of the period never recorded the name of Muhammad’s first wife. There are some theories that she and her father might have colluded with the enemies who stole her husband’s throne, but because of the resolution of Muhammad’s troubles, the chroniclers kept her name a secret. It is frustrating to have the names and details about others who played a significant role in these historical events, yet know so little information about the woman at the heart of Muhammad’s troubles, beyond her origin and position in the family as well as her role as mother of the eventual heir. Missing information is a common plague for anyone who researches history. As with other authors in historical fiction, I have had to accept the bitter truth: no matter how much I persevere or how long the research takes, I cannot know everything.

Still, the dreaded trap of endless research lures authors like a siren song to spend countless hours on obscure information. This leads to a second hurdle; getting lost in the details. While an effort to capture a true sense of time and place is critical for authenticity, not every extraneous detail is necessary in historical fiction. Part of the reason I have logged so many years of research on books in the series pertains to an endless fascination with the Moors, including spices and cuisine, fashions, social mores including the restrictions of the harem upon women, and the effect of cross-border conflicts in shaping the history of Spain. What can I say? I am a nerd who sometimes prefers researching to writing. Less than a third of what I have discovered remains in the final draft, although I will admit there is a bit of food porn in earlier chapters of The Bride Price, which my editor will likely trim. The history and cultural rules surrounding Spain’s last Muslim dynasty only partially defines the work. The range of emotions for characters and their subsequent actions are the driving force behind the novel.

A third obstacle relates to the research predicament. Authors are not historians, but achievement of the right balance between real and imagined history makes for great historical fiction. What is the right balance? How much truth versus fabrication will take the story in a good direction? For all the factual events surrounding Muhammad’s marriage to his cousin in The Bride Price, all choices and related emotions unfold only in my mind. Why did Muhammad select the daughter of a traitor as his bride? What would it have been like for her to marry the son of the man who had imprisoned her father? How could two people who had no reason to trust each other make a marriage work and sustain their dynasty? You can guess if I chose to write about these historical figures, there is perhaps more than a fair share of dramatized resentment, loss, heartbreak, and anguish in the novel. Invented scenes sustain and enrich the plot against the backdrop of history, but no one knows whether the drama could have or did not play out that way. That is one of the many gifts of historical fiction, the essence of the truth wrapped in plausible lies.

Every word my characters utter, every thought, is a veritable lie. I have no means and little reason to assume they said or thought of the problems before them in the ways I describe. This leads to another dilemma; putting words into people’s mouths. It is inescapable, and the novel would make for poor and very short reading if my characters never expressed any beliefs or said them outright. As with invented scenes, words and thoughts expressed on the page should capture the core context in which an event unfolds and / or the mores of the particular culture. No anachronisms in attitudes and behaviors occur in my novels. My protagonists do not question a marriage between close family members any more than they might wonder about the restrictions of the harem and veil, or the reasoning that allowed a man to have multiple wives and concubines. My characters also do not ponder the evils of enslavement or seek to alter society in a way the real figures would not have recognized. Their sentiments reflect Moorish ideals, not those of my readers or me.

In my view, my sole responsibility as a writer is to construct a story which relies on the facts I have discovered, in such a way that my characters’ thoughts and actions are plausible for the relevant period and interesting to readers. That’s my truth and I’m sticking to it.

Lisa J. Yarde writes fiction inspired by the Middle Ages in Europe. She is the author of two historical novels set in medieval England and Normandy, The Burning Candle, based on the life of Isabel de Vermandois, and On Falcon’s Wings, chronicling the star-crossed romance between Norman and Saxon lovers. Lisa has also written four novels in a six-part series set in Moorish Spain, Sultana, Sultana’s Legacy, Sultana: Two Sisters, and Sultana: The Bride Price (available spring 2014) where rivalries and ambitions threaten the fragile bonds between members of a powerful family. Her short story, The Legend Rises, which chronicles Gwenllian of Gwynedd’s valiant fight against English invaders, is included in Pagan Writers Press’ 2013 HerStory anthology.



One Comment

  1. Your insight here really hit home: “Still, the dreaded trap of endless research lures authors like a siren song to spend countless hours on obscure information. This leads to a second hurdle; getting lost in the details.” I have dozens of articles saved on my computer about various obscure but fascinating details, and I’ve read dozens more. There have been times when I’ve gone for a week or more without writing my novel because I’m so wrapped up in research. Eventually I realized that what I was researching wasn’t going to end up in my book at all. Like you say, the historical novelist’s ultimate responsibility is to write a story that is both plausible and entertaining. I may need to print off your final paragraph and tape it to my computer as a reminder! 😉