Those of you who follow my social media posts will know that I've been lucky enough to be announced as a contender for the Joan Hessayon Award for debut novelists with the Romantic Novelists' Association. (Yes, still pinching myself!) At the time of the announcement, I was also asked to write a short article about my views on historical fiction. Of course, I didn't need to be asked twice! Here's my take on it, but I'd love to hear your views. What do you look for in historical fiction?
This article was first published on writing.ie on 25th July 2023 and can be accessed via this link: https://www.writing.ie/resources/my-view-on-historical-fiction-by-angela-m-sims/
When I began writing, there was never a question about whether it should be historical fiction or not. It was always going to be a historical setting. The reason for this is that my interest in the Italian Renaissance came before the decision to write a novel. Much of my research happened as a result of being an inquisitive tourist, rather than a researching author. Of course, this changed as my first novel, The Rose of Florence, blossomed. The central event of the story is The Pazzi Conspiracy, a real event in the history of Florence that can be found in many a history book, and even dramatised for television. This was the starting point for me. It has been widely written about, and so I had no trouble finding detailed, while sometimes conflicting, accounts of the events. This is where being an author of fiction allows a certain amount of freedom. You can take some liberties with the truth, but where should you stop?
Of course, this is my view on historical fiction, and one that is important to me as a reader, but other authors may have a very different view. If you are going to write about a well-documented event, you really owe it to your reader (and to the protagonists) to be as accurate as possible. The who, the what, the how and the why were very important to me, and I tried to keep this as accurate as possible. I did, however, play with the date a little. History books tell us that the event occurred during Eastertide, between Easter itself and Pentecost, forty days later. Some more dramatic accounts place it on Easter Sunday itself, and I chose to go with this version, purely for purposes of the story. Having taken this liberty, I also believe it is my responsibility to ensure the reader knows I have done this by including the correct version in my Author’s Notes at the end of the book.
So, this is the main event with facts that can easily be checked, but what about the smaller details? What about the time, the place, the people who lived there at the time? Any reader of historical fiction will tell you how important it is to get the feeling that you are there with the characters, to see what they see, to taste what they eat, and so on, and this is where research gets interesting. It is said that an author’s internet search history could sometimes get them arrested, or at least raise an eyebrow or two, and I was no different. “What part of a foxglove is poisonous?” “How much is needed to kill?” “What are the symptoms of digitalis poisoning?” With a background in cardiology, I had a fair idea of the symptoms, but I needed to know how this poisoning might work in a Renaissance kitchen. Several internet searches and many hours and numerous books later, I have a fair idea how plants and herbs were used for good and evil at that time. Never upset an author. You never know what secret knowledge they possess!
With any research, primary sources are usually the most reliable, as they are accounts by people who were there and witnessed events. For some areas of history, that’s easy, because I can do it myself. No, I can’t go back five hundred years, but the landmarks I included in The Rose of Florence are still there today. I have visited them all many times and can close my eyes and see them as clearly as I can see my own kitchen or garden. Similarly with food. There are many writers of medieval cookery, and I spent countless hours poring over their descriptions of foods that were consumed at the time. But why take their word for it? Eleonora, the cook in my story, is famous for her zuccotto, an Italian dessert. I have eaten my fair share of Italian desserts but hadn’t come across this before. I visited several restaurants and coffee shops in Florence but only found one that made them. It wasn’t that impressive, if I’m honest, but I was intrigued by the number of variations of the recipe that were available in my research. So, what would an honest, researching author do? I tried it out myself. By combining what I considered to be the best parts of each recipe, I created my own zuccotto … and pretty darn good it was, too!
It is possible to get things wrong, though, and this is where my Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS) reviewer proved invaluable. One of the great aspects of this scheme is that the NWS pairs you with a reviewer who is experienced in writing your genre, and so it was with mine. Taking the small yet significant parts first, she picked up that the surname that I’d chosen for one of the characters was unlikely to be found in Florence at the time. She also commented that my main character’s blond hair was implausible. While there are many blond(e) Italians now, at the time this story is set, it would have been highly unlikely that they would have had anything other than dark hair. These are small details, but if a writer is to take their reader into a historical world, then it should be as accurate as possible.
As an experienced author, it would have been too easy for her to find fault with my crude attempt at a novel and make no mistake, she did. There were great plot holes, character flaws and inconsistencies aplenty, and she found them all, but what she did was send me a very detailed report that encouraged me. Much of the report also highlighted what was good about it and made me believe that I could actually achieve the impossible dream of a published novel.
And here I am, my debut novel is published, and I am now a contender for the RNA Joan Hessayon Award for New Writers. A couple of years ago, like many before me I suspect, I would never have believed that such a thing would be possible, and it is my true belief that without the NWS it would have been impossible … or at least I would have spent far too long in the murky world of Renaissance research and never been seen again!