There are many reasons why I love writing about historical figures in historical fiction. Chief among them is the chance to create scenes based on guesswork, an explanation of why people who shaped the past might have taken a particular action. Usually, the justification I offer is a lie.
History gave me the greatest gifts any writer can obtain as I outlined my newest novel, Sultana: The Bride Price. The historical events were dramatic, revolving around a marriage of convenience between the children of two royal brothers, one of whom had imprisoned the younger sibling for treason. The stakes were high; the wrong choice in alliances meant not only the loss of a kingdom, but certain death. In this case, boy married girl to ensure peace in his family, but the union did not achieve his aim, as he ended up losing both his kingdom and his wife to an opponent, his brother.
I couldn’t have asked for a better historical background to complement the narrative of Sultana: The Bride Price, but so much of the details remained elusive. Not the ‘who, what or when’ of this turbulent period in fourteenth-century Moorish Spain; instead, I needed to know how the quarrels of an earlier generation had affected its descendants. Did a husband and wife, who had little reason to trust each other because of the past, find common ground and attempt to build a future? What was my heroine’s role in her first husband’s downfall? Did she willingly agree to marry his enemy afterward? Was she just a pawn in a larger story of never-ending conflict between sibling rivals? The facts are never the whole story.
History also rarely gives the elusive why – the reasons behind the choices made or the events as they unfolded. As much as I have spent hours chasing the undiscovered truth about characters, most of them historical figures mired in misinformation and biases, finding plausible reasons for their behavior fired my imagination. While I prefer to keep to the recorded history in my stories, freedom comes from putting words into my characters’ mouths and thoughts into their minds.
The outright lie that feels real and rings true often stirs the deepest, innate emotions, and helps form connections with characters and cultures otherwise alien to us. Basic motives such as love and lust, jealousy, hopelessness, grief and recovery, courage, and vengeance and triumph haven’t changed over millennia. There is universal appeal and understanding because every writer and reader has experienced such emotions. Even when characters aren’t real, their aims and struggles should be. Otherwise, the lies come undone.
When storytellers of any form ascribe feelings to historical figures, we usually have to create a persuasive lie. There’s a danger that what we do creates the perception of fiction equaling the truth; consider the effect of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart on viewers for years after the film debuted. I always explain events behind the narrative in the author’s note for each of my novels and reveal the lies. Yet, invariably, I’ll get some email or a comment in a review: “I can’t believe this stuff really happened!” Oh well. Without those essential lies about my characters, I doubt readers would connect with the story.
Lisa J. Yarde, August 4, 2014
Lisa 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 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.