The London chapter of the HNS was founded in February 2011 and meets once a month in central London to discuss topics of interest to all lovers of historical fiction. We welcome both readers and writers and, although many of our members are also writers, most of our meetings are focused on the reader experience. Recent topics for discussion include birth and death scenes in historical novels, dialogue, humour, and religion.
We usually meet on the first Saturday of each month over lunch at a friendly pub near South Kensington tube.
For more information, please contact us.
Below are a couple of reports from recent meetings so you can see the sorts of things we are discussing.
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 11 April 2015
The subject of the meeting was Research in Historical Novels.
In preparation for the meeting, Tom had written a blog post on the topic: http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/2015/04/research.html. He discussed how the quantity of research undertaken is always a matter of judgement and personal preference. Some writers and readers are only happy with strictly factual events being included in novels, others are content with invented elements which carry the story forward. Readers have different levels of tolerance for inaccuracies or changes to the known facts. Further, it is impossible to have no mistakes at all, even in scholarly works of non-fiction. At some point, you have to stop researching or the story itself would never get written.
The following areas were also discussed:
- Readers will get annoyed about inaccuracies in areas of history of which they have specialist knowledge, but are more tolerant of mistakes or changes to ‘facts’ in periods about which they know little.
- Some readers who write online reviews seem to enjoy finding inaccuracies and pointing them out. They may pick on inaccuracies as a way of avoiding saying outright that they didn’t like the book.
- Jennifer commented on the importance of going back to the original sources when conducting research, as secondary sources may introduce inaccuracies and bias. Tom added that he likes to start with a modern account for an overview, which helps avoid getting too bogged down in the details of the original sources. He commented that sometimes it can take a whole day to find out a single fact (which might be represented by just one word in the finished novel), so you have to know where to stop.
- Jennifer had recently visited Jamaica as part of the research for her forthcoming novel about Mary Seacole. This had been very valuable in giving her a real sense of place. Sue added that the feel of a setting is often more important to the reader than the ‘facts’. However, some novelists are very successful in evoking places they have never even visited.
- We discussed Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell. In these, she has done a large amount of research but also undertakes an imaginative exploration of how Cromwell became the man he was. This emotional detail on his family background and relationships would never be found in any source material.
- We discussed ‘info-dumping’ and how authors sometimes use conversation between characters as a way of wedging in their research. Nat considered Lindsay Davis to be guilty of this on occasion. In her Falco novels, the main character is consciously writing his memoirs, so there is no need for the information to be included in this way – he could just give it straight to the reader outside of dialogue. Tom commented that this type of direct exposition does however need to be tied into the narrative to work, i.e. it has to relate to what is happening to the character at that point the novel, so that it makes sense why this explanatory detail would be in his thoughts at that moment.
- We talked about when (i.e. at what stage in the process of writing) a writer should do their research. Nat had attended a talk by Kate Mosse in which the writer explained that she does all her research first, before getting into the intense work of writing, whereas her friend Tracey Chevalier does the research as she goes along.
- Mary spoke about William Golding’s Sea Trilogy, which is a narrative of a voyage. There is lots of exposition of naval detail, but this is appropriate in the context. Further, as the character of the narrative changes over the course of the trilogy, from a diary to a memoir intended to be read by others, the nature of the exposition also changes.
- Tom mentioned Simon Scarrow’s novels about Napoleon and Wellington. He considered them to be badly written as novels, but very good for giving the reader an understanding of the Peninsular War. Some readers are more interested in military detail than stylistic concerns, and they might enjoy these novels a lot.
- Mary mentioned Georgette Heyer’s The Spanish Bride, about Harry Smith and the wife he rescued from the siege of Badajoz in the Peninsular War. This provides a large amount of narrative detail on the wider military context, but Mary felt the novel to be at its strongest when it focuses on the personal story of the main characters. Sue commented that many readers would by contrast consider the military context to be the important thing.
- Sue’s example of the handling of research was from Traitor’s Blood by Michael Arnold, a novel of the English Civil War. This included a detailed scene of musketry training which did not involve the main characters or seem to fit into the narrative flow. This detail was then repeated whenever anyone fired a musket! Although her experience was that this scene detracted from the novel, she acknowledged that for some readers, the military detail is the most important element.
- Ouida has been reading The Goshawk by T.H.White, an autobiographical account of hawk training. It includes a high level of detail about falconry, but maintains the reader’s interest by raising questions in their mind which it then moves on to answer.
The next meeting will be on the 9th May (not the 2nd due to the bank holiday weekend). The topic will be Villains in Historical Fiction. How do writers go about constructing strong/convincing ‘villain’ characters? Why are some villains more attractive/interesting than the heroes they oppose? Please bring along examples of historical novels with villains you love to hate!
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 7 March 2015
The meeting was chaired by Justin and attended by Rachel, Ouida, Beth, Tom and Sue. The topic was historical fantasy novels, we began by discussing whether fantasy novels with a historical setting could truly be considered historical fiction. On the practical side of classification, Rachel said that space for reviews of children’s novels in the HNS magazine was at such a premium she would rather space was not given over to reviews of fantasy novels. Whilst it was agreed that in general historical fantasy was different from Alternative History, the two can overlap. Some sub-genres such as Arthurian novels can be classed with historical fiction when the subject matter is Arthur as a Dark Age warlord but tend towards fantasy if magic predominates. Beth and Tom pointed to works containing fantasy that reflect in-period beliefs (Shakespeare, Beowulf).
After a further discussion on what dates should be classed as the boundary for historical fiction, we looked at some examples of historical fantasy:
Rachel had brought a non-fiction book, Stephen Clarke’s Dirty Bertie: An English King Made in France, about Edward VII. At the end of the book the author imagines the effect on World War One if Edward VII had still been alive when Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, speculating that he would have persuaded his fellow European monarchs in his genial way that this might not have been altogether a bad thing and was not sufficient cause for war.
Sue had brought Barbara Hambly’s Travelling with the Dead, a vampire-spy thriller novel for which the exact time period was unclear (Note – Sue had thought this was Victorian but now sees that the next in the series is set in 1911 which places the previous novel in the Edwardian era, perhaps explaining the puzzling reference to Einstein). The story provides a “scientific explanation” of vampirism so perhaps not totally a fantasy.
Justin read a passage from The Court of the Midnight King by Freda Warrington, a novel about Richard III with fantasy elements. Justin said the historical parts of the novel were well-researched and he had actually enjoyed reading it. The author has combined historical fact with an England where a pagan, matriarchal, religion similar to Isis-worship co-exists with Christianity, mythical creatures are used in battles and the characters can cross into other worlds. It certainly sounded a change from more orthodox novels about Richard III.
Both Justin and Sue had also brought Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, the first of a series set in an alternative Napoleonic Wars where dragons are used for aerial warfare and military transport. The lead characters are Temeraire, an exceptionally large, intelligent, dragon, and his handler Captain William Laurence. The fond relationships between the dragons and their handlers are a nice touch (there is also humour in the way the dragons behave with each other). However, credibility is stretched by the device by which the dragons hatch from their eggs talking fluently in the languages which have been spoken around them and practicalities such as around using dragons as troop transports.
Other authors that might be of interest are Jodi Taylor’s Chronicles of St Mary’s (featuring time travellers investigating historical events) and Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels set in fantasy kingdoms that are based on actual historical locations e.g. The Lions of Al-Rassan (based on Reconquista Spain) and A Song for Arbonne (medieval Provence).
The next meeting will be on 11th April with the theme of Research in historical novels, As a writer, how do you know when to stop researching? How do you avoid info-dumping?
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 10 January 2015
The theme of the meeting was The Gothic, inspired by the current exhibition at the British Library, Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination.
Those who had attended the exhibition commented on how it was better structured in the early sections, with rooms focussed on Henry Walpole and Mary Shelley, for example. It then broadened out and ended with many disparate examples from the modern horror genre. It was suggested that this move from structured to less structured exhibits could be a function of the smaller range of material available from the early days of Gothic literature, compared with the modern profusion of Gothic/horror themes.
Mary commented on how Gothic literature began with an inclination towards the historical, with novels focused on castles, maidens in distress and corrupt monks, etc, with a strong element of the supernatural. As the nineteenth century progressed, Gothic elements were incorporated into novels set in the contemporary world, as in the works of the Bronte sisters. The Victorian trend towards sensational fiction, with a stronger focus on crime and poverty, then developed. The Victorian Gothic has been self-consciously echoed in the work of modern writers such as Sarah Waters.
There was discussion as to how ‘the Gothic’ should be defined and delimited:
- Where is the line between ‘the Gothic’ and ‘horror’?
- ‘Gothic’ originally referred to a particular style of medieval architecture, and relates to the setting of many of the earliest Gothic novels, for example Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Walpole self-consciously modelled his house at Strawberry Hill on this architectural style. However, many ‘Gothic’ novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula do not have this architectural focus.
- There was a feeling that Gothic literature has reference to ‘the soul’. For example, vampires such as Dracula may have lost their souls, and Frankenstein is not able to give his creation a soul.
- There may also be a focus on the battle between good and evil, although often villains can be attractively charismatic. For example, Tom felt Dracula himself to be the most interesting character in Bram Stoker’s novel.
We also explored why the theme of the Gothic emerged at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. In the dawn of a rational, atheistic and scientific age, people were drawn by way of contrast to explorations of the irrational and supernatural. Scientific exploration, in the form of public demonstrations of the ‘reanimation’ of corpses by electricity, directly influenced Mary Shelley. This was also a time when people were moving away from having real belief in magic and the supernatural, and so it was becoming a ‘safe’ theme to play with. Further, as condemnation of Catholicism and the medieval period with which it was associated became less severe, the Gothic in architecture could come to be seen as an attractive style again.
Specific examples of ‘Gothic’ novels were also discussed:
- Justin mentioned The English Monster by Lloyd Shepherd, which appears to be a standard historical novel set in two time periods, until you realise halfway through that one of the characters has become immortal. This is unsatisfying and causes a sort of ‘genre confusion’, as what you thought was straight historical fiction turns out to have strong fantasy elements.
- Mark read a story in which a haunted house is rented by a stranger. The stranger works out where the restless spirit’s remains are buried, and ends the haunting by giving it decent burial. Mark revealed at the end that the story was recorded by the Roman author Pliny, showing that interest in ghost stories is much older than the start of ‘the Gothic.’
- Mary read from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, a novel set in an alternative version of nineteenth century England, in which magic is real but has become an academic discipline. The scene was set in York Minster, an archetypally ‘Gothic’ setting, and as a local group of magicians looks on, the stones themselves began to speak of the crimes they have witnessed.
- Tom showed us the graphic novel Batman Gothic, which draws on Gothic imagery and colour schemes, and has a classical Gothic focus on the fate of the soul. He also said that he had enjoyed reading The Castle of Otranto, in which the tension is successfully maintained by including dramatic incidents on almost every page.
There will not be a meeting in February (due to the fact that the pub is not available on 7th, and 14th is Valentine’s day). The next meeting will be on 7th March with the theme of Historical Fantasy. This will be a discussion of historical novels which include elements of magic, time travel, supernatural creatures, etc. Please bring along examples to share, and think about questions such as: Where is the line between mainstream historical fiction and historical fantasy? Do you enjoy both, or prefer strict realism? Is historical fantasy within the remit of the HNS? etc.
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 6 December 2014
The theme of the meeting was ‘Constructing the Medieval Mind’.
Antoine opened the meeting by discussing the work of Zoe Oldenbourg, who wrote novels set in medieval France, as well as non-fiction. In particular, he recommended Destiny of Fire, a novel about the Albigensian Crusade from the point of view of the Cathars. Antoine felt that the novel was written entirely from the medieval perspective, without the intrusion of a twentieth-century mindset. The novel focuses on the nature of human love, the value of human life, and the terrifying experience of being part of a persecuted minority. It recreates a worldview without science, in which religion is all-important and characters have little knowledge of things outside their immediate sphere.
This led to a discussion on the following points:
- How far is it possible for modern authors to inhabit the mindset of the past? Justin suggested that all novels are filtered through the prism of the author’s own times, although their portrayal of the past can be based on well-grounded research and can be convincing to varying degrees.
- There is a balance to be struck between realistic depictions of the past and viewpoints that are acceptable to modern readers. For example, in the nineteenth century it was considered wrong to treat your social ‘inferiors’ as equals, and so a character exhibiting behaviour that would be considered correct in the nineteenth century context might be unsympathetic to modern readers.
- In constructing an internally consistent world, how is historical fiction different from fantasy? How important is factual accuracy? Mark drew out the contrast between Zoe Oldenbourg, whose novels are set in a very particular time and place, and Jim Crace, whose historical fiction creates a consistent world but one which is not pinpointed to a specific setting.
- There was discussion as to how far ‘human nature’ remains consistent over time. Are there universal constants in terms of morality, and do people of different periods feel the same, for example when they suffer tragedies such as the death of a child?
- The majority of humans do act in ways that make sense to them within their own worldview, and are not setting out to be ‘wrong/evil’, even if their actions may be judged that way by people from other times or cultures. Mary commented that in Oldenbourg’s novel The World is Not Enough, the barons are a law unto themselves and commit atrocities as part of blood feuds between families, but this makes sense to them based on their notions of family honour.
- The idea was raised that there is no one ‘medieval mind’, any more than people of the current day all share the same views. At any point in time, there is a multiplicity of ways of seeing the world.
- Mary read a passage from The World is Not Enough which illustrated how a medieval noblewoman’s function was the production of male heirs. The character Alice’s pregnancy lessened her father-in-law’s hostility towards her – provided the child was a boy, of course.
- Natalie read from Oldenbourg’s novel The Heirs of the Kingdom, which is concerned with the experience of peasants who joined the First Crusade. She was struck by the atmosphere of sexual violence and the attitude that any woman who did not cover herself up was ‘asking for it.’ A socially acceptable solution to a rape having taken place was for the rapist to marry his victim.
HNS Conference 2016
Carol announced that the 2016 HNS Conference was now in the planning stages and asked for volunteers to help with conference organisation. The following roles are required: conference managers; secretary; short story judges; treasurer/bursar; bookselling; hospitality; reader liaison; indie books; pitch sessions; programme organisation. Please contact Carol if you would like to become involved (email@example.com). The venue may be London or Oxford – please let Carol know your thoughts if you have a preference for one over the other.
The next meeting will be on 10th January and the theme will be the Gothic in historical fiction. It is recommended that you visit the current exhibition at the British Library in advance of the meeting, but this is by no means essential. Please bring along examples in which the Gothic and the supernatural in general have played an important role in historical novels. (Please note that this meeting will be on the second, not first, Saturday of the month, due to the Christmas break.)
HNS London Chapter Meeting, 1 November 2014
The theme of the meeting was Weather in Historical Novels.
Emma brought along Company of Liars by Karen Maitland, which follows the progress of a motley company travelling through England in the plague year. Emma read an early scene in which a rainstorm is used as a device to bring several of the main characters together, as they gather around a cart stuck in the mud.
Rachel’s choice was After by Morris Gleitzman, about a 13-year-old Jewish boy called Felix in wartime Poland. Felix decides to leave the partisan troupe with whom he is camped in the forest, but falls asleep as he prepares to leave with his horse Dom. When he wakes, he is surrounded by freshly-fallen snow and his feet are in agony from frostbite. We see it dawn on Felix that if he had made his escape attempt, his footprints in the snow would have been plain for the Nazis to see.
Sandra read from My Lady Judge by Cora Harrison, the first in a series of historical novels set in the Burren, Ireland, in the sixteenth century. The ‘detective’ character is a female judge in the tradition of Brehon law. Sandra read a passage from early in the novel, depicting a beautiful summer scene in the limestone landscape of the region. The novel is full of descriptions of place that pinpoint the novel in its particular, distinctive landscape.
Ouida mentioned that she was intending to read In These Times by Jenny Uglow, a non-fiction work about Britain in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. This was a period of particularly harsh winters.
Natalie’s example was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson. This is an experimental novel in which the main character, Ursula Todd, dies repeatedly but then the narrative returns to the beginning of her life; slight changes in circumstance in each version lead her life on a different course. In the first iteration of her life, she dies immediately after birth as the doctor and midwife cannot make it to her mother due to the heavy snow. After the explicit imagery of darkness around each of her deaths, we return to the snowy birth scene, the snow acting as a blank page on which her life can begin again.
The next meeting is on 6th December with the theme of Constructing the Mediaeval Mind – the session will focus on Zoe Oldenbourg’s novels set in the mediaeval period, and her success in depicting the mediaeval mindset. It is recommended to read one of her mediaeval period novels in advance of the meeting, but this is not essential. Examples are Destiny of Fire and The Heirs of the Kingdom. These are readily available second hand on Amazon. Please also bring along any other examples of depictions of the mediaeval worldview in historical fiction. We will also have a Secret Santa, as this will be our Christmas meeting. Please bring along an anonymously wrapped historical novel (second hand is fine) to exchange at the meeting.