One of the markers or signifiers that we are in the made-up land of the novel is that the characters are fictional. That tells us immediately, however subtley, that the story isn’t ‘true’; i.e. it never happened, especially not to those characters. A good story will use these fictional ingredients to tell a deeper truth. There never was a Marsh family full of little women, but there were plenty of other families just like them.
What concerns me as a novelist working with historical material is how we treat ‘real’ characters, ones that lived and breathed and did things all in a certain order for certain reasons. I get my kicks first finding out what they did and when, and then speculating as to why. In that respect I’m very close to a historian except that I’m allowed to dramatise the story and make it seem real, taking the reader into the heart of events. I try not to bend the facts. That’s my obsession and I’m keeping it.
If I come across a novel, especially one set in my period of the Renaissance, that deliberately makes hay with the facts of history, e.g. The Medici Guns, I will not read it because I would get virally infected with misinformation. (It’s not just fiction where this happens: Lauro Martines rewrote history in April Blood when he ‘tried to write like a novelist’.)
When one has created a set of fictional characters and set them in the past, attention to background detail is extremely important, but you can of course let your story have its head – albeit within reason. This is the safest way to go, for sure. Taking on real people, to my mind, carries a burden of responsibility. I really don’t like them being turned into murderers or descendants of Jesus at the whim of a whimsical author looking for the quick buck. I’m not saying those books shouldn’t be written; just that I shouldn’t feel compelled to read them let alone write one myself.
I accept that the more fanciful conspiracy theory-type books can be a stage on the way, leading the avid reader into checking the facts and reading a bit more deeply in the subject. That can only be to the good. After all, I arrived at my own high-mindedness via cowboy stories, Erik von Daniken, tales of Atlantis and quite a long time being deeply fascinated by UFOs. But I worry that people take the stuff of the Da Vinci Code as real. It, and others like it, sit like toads on my period, spoiling everything.
I’ve just watched Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. True? Of course not. Anyone who takes a gravity-defying ride on a super truck and comes out of it still wearing his hat and carrying his whip is clearly the stuff of fantasy. You suspend belief, enjoy the ride, and mentally check off what elements of plot may be visible amidst the roaring tyres and swarming ants. Yes, there are such things as the Nazca lines. Yes, they could have been landing strips for aliens – it’s plausible. Those quips in the classroom – I find myself trusting that the archaeological in-jokes are well-researched. Is the story true? No, of course not. Jones has most archaeologists crying with laughter. But it’s a good romp, like the National Treasure series, and is firmly in the Rider Haggard school of adventure stories.
A film I enjoyed tremendously for its accuracy to detail was Shakespeare in Love. Of course it didn’t happen, but it could have done. The plot was so carefully infiltrated into time you could practically date the events. That’s what I like: good research, good story, painstakingly and cleverly done, which puts flesh on the bones of history and makes us just a little bit wiser.
Which all brings me back to my friend’s son and his question, and why he should even wonder if Knights of the Grail is true. My Arthurian stories are filled with monsters, miracles and improbabilities, drawn from the canon and then embellished further, so that the Questing Beast has digestive problems and always betrays his presence by belching. There are even running taps in one of the castles. I really enjoyed myself, after the strictures I live under with adult fiction, being as magically-realist as I wanted to be. And along comes this child and asks, ‘Is it true?’
Was there a King Arthur, a Grail, a knight called Bedevere whose love of his life was his cat? Well, yes, but not in this dimension. Tread softly now, for you tread on my dreams, and the Otherworld of the imagination has its own truth.
[I’ve just been listening to Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time on Radio 4 and today’s fascinating discussion was about Aristotle’s Poetics. Apparently Aristotle considered poetry – which would include novels – to be superior to history as a form of moral education, because poetry deals with universals while history deals with particulars. It will be broadcast again tonight, if you are interested and live in the UK].