Tuesday, 31 January 2012

GUEST BLOG: How Much History? How Much Fiction? - Nick Brown

Hail Mighty Readers,
Friend of the Blog Nick Brown has been kind enough to do a guest blog for us in celebration of the paperback release of his debut title, Agent of Rome: The Siege (released 19th Jan by Headline.)

So without further ado, Nick's post on How Much History? How Much Fiction?...

For anyone embarking on a work of what is sometimes now known as HF, the two key elements are clear. What is less clear, and what must be decided fairly early on, is how of much of each to include. Fortunately, even when I first started work on what would become the Agent of Rome series, I was pretty clear on my approach.

Although I wanted to place my story in a realistic and convincing setting, I didn’t want to include historical figures as major characters. I suspected I would find it restrictive, mainly because I didn’t feel comfortable with significant manipulation of “the known facts” (not to say there’s anything wrong with that; it’s just not for me).

As I was keen on telling a fairly small-scale story anyway, this didn’t seem likely to be a problem. My decision to avoid the grand sweep of history was, somewhat bizarrely, clarified by Star Wars. Bear with me; I shall try to explain. For me, the most compelling section of the series is the first part of Episode IV. All that good stuff on Tatooine – Mos Eisley, meeting Han Solo, outrunning the Imperials and so on. I considered why I liked it so much and decided it was because of the feeling that Luke Skywalker et al. were on the on edge of this vast canvas, with only hints and suggestions of the broader picture. When we actually saw the rest of the universe in the later “prequels”, I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed. In summary, for me, less is definitely more.

But which first – the history or the fiction? Right at the beginning, when formulating my initial concept, it was the fiction. Or rather, the narrative. I had always wanted to do a siege story, a Roman Zulu, with a small cast of characters I could follow throughout the tale. Next I needed my backdrop; and here came the first dip of the toe into history. It wasn’t long before I encountered Queen Zenobia of Palmyra – a colourful character whose third century rebellion would provide the opposing force for my heroic defenders. (One literary agent who I sent an early draft of the book to admonished me for not placing such a compelling figure centre stage. A fair point perhaps, but I stuck to my guns, preferring to present her as seen from afar by my antagonist, the Palmyran swordsman and strategos Azaf.)

But what about the protagonist? At first, my main character – fish-out-of-water young gentleman Cassius Corbulo- was to be a centurion. Back to the history again - is this possible? Of course most centurions were seasoned veterans promoted after years of service, but some were also directly commissioned from the upper classes, so in theory, yes. Further research then led me to what is often known as Rome’s “secret service”: the frumentarii - so named for their original role in distributing grain. These operatives often acted independently of the regular army but could still be granted a rank equivalent to a centurion. In this instance, the history guided the fiction. By making Cassius a “grain man” I knew there were endless story possibilities for an “agent of Rome”. In The Siege, with every officer needed on the front line, Cassius must pose as a “real” centurion. In the sequel, The Imperial Banner, he is in full agent mode, investigating the theft of a sacred Persian flag.

But back to The Siege - a fictional small-scale story set within a real historical context; with a cast of fictional characters accompanied by a few historical figures confined to the periphery of the narrative. But a few mentions of a few real characters and a few real events aren’t going to be enough to create a compelling piece of historical fiction. The real work starts here.

Historical research can be hard going. I’ve been through entire books and picked out maybe a dozen things I can use - could be a photo of a building, a list of foodstuffs, an extract from a letter, perhaps just an interesting name. Five might make it into the first draft, one or two to the finished piece. But unless it’s on a completely unrelated subject, the chances are some gems will turn up. For The Siege, I needed to know about a lot about the Roman army of the 3rd century, but along the way I also found about everything from the origins of glassware to the advantages of the four-horned saddle, from the rise of barrels over amphorae to contemporary fashions in facial hair. Finishing a historical novel is a bit like finishing your A levels; your head is full of a vast amount of information you are unlikely to ever use again (unless you can find a place for it in the next book!) But the hope is that these details combine to form a real sense of time and place; a convincing, authentic setting in which to tell the tale.

Wherever possible, I tried to ensure that the detail was accurate. Inevitably I have made “errors”, though given the scarcity of information on some issues, “historical accuracy” remains a nebulous concept. In the author’s note, I felt compelled to identify those few occasions when I had knowingly gone against “the facts”. It’s perhaps worth looking at a couple of examples to illustrate what happens when faced with a choice between history and fiction.

From what I’d read, I knew that most of the legionaries at the fort Cassius takes command of would have been local; that is to say Syrian. But I also wanted to include a group of native auxiliaries. So, for the sake of the story, I therefore had the legionaries hail from Italy, Greece and several provinces other than Syria. The narrative was undoubtedly improved by having the two distinct groups together in the fort and the tensions that arose from the situation. Dramatically essential, historically dubious. I doubt I’m the first.

Another example; Queen Zenobia is usually described as a woman of unsurpassed beauty who rode around with one breast exposed and inspired great loyalty in her followers. Some modern historians put this image down to overzealous contemporary reporting and an eagerness to compare her to her illustrious predecessor Cleopatra. My (admittedly male) view: great stuff! Why not present her in this way? Ultimately the queen’s effect on her troops, one in particular, became a crucial strand of the story. Accurate? We’ll never know.

So, I made my choices, and I’m still pretty happy with them. Others, depending on their attitude to such things, may not be. Ultimately, we writers and readers all have our own take on this. Should the facts get in the way of a good story? Should a good story get in the way of the facts? The debate will continue for as long as historical fiction is popular which, at the moment, seems likely to be a very long time.

1 comment:

William Burke said...

Nicely written old boy. For me it's far more important that the characters behave in a realistic way in the situations they find themselves in than whether or not they're wearing the right helmet or carrying the right shield. By all means create a believable world but don't get bogged down in details and definitely don't let the facts get in the way of a good story! Will.