It was a rather terrifying moment in my writing life. I had been asked to read from my novel about Mozart at a scholarly conference: the Mozart Society of America Even a prominent scholar from the Mozarteum in Salzburg was attending. Here were a group of people who had dedicated their lives to studying aspects of Mozart’s life and music. (One or two were so scholarly that I have no idea what they were saying!) I got up rather tremulously and decided to be honest. I told them, “Thank you for all your hard work. I take your work, mix it with a little imagination and turn it into fiction.” And to great surprise, they loved the scenes I read.
So is what the historical novelist writes fact or fiction? “Both,” I say. “In a sensitive, creative, respectful and sometimes daring combination.”
Many years ago, I had dinner in Oxford with the great Elizabethan scholar Dr. A.L. Rowse. There I confessed to him that I wanted to write Elizabethan historical fiction but felt shy about making up dialogue. His eyes widened and he said, “But of course you have to make it up!” That was my blessing to go forward and I was happy to dedicate one of my novels to him.
“How much is real? What is true?” I always hear these questions when I speak about my novels. I try to give an overall view. I say, “We can’t know what great people said behind the closed bedroom door,” and they all nod modestly in agreement. Behind closed bedroom doors – oh, of course not!
“But what is historical fiction?” people also ask and I reply, “It’s fiction based on history.” More, it is a dramatic piece and must tell an interesting, hopefully gripping story. To do that it must have a plot and dramatic highlights; it must not be repetitive or meander. Real lives do both. You must trim and shape real life into fictional form.
Shakespeare wrote historical fiction in his history plays. Some people have never forgiven him for making Richard III an evil guy, but Shakespeare was writing under the reign of the granddaughter of the man who dethroned Richard, so he shaped his character to something that would please her. He also has Henry V cry passionately before the Battle of Agincourt, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends!” In real life Henry might have said, “My boots hurt,” but it would not be as memorable and not nearly as stirring.
We find facts in history books; we find living truth in historical fiction. And if a reader is introduced to an area of the past or a great historical figure she loves through fiction, she can always turn back to the work of historians. Nothing makes me happier as an author than to hear that I have made some part of history as real to readers as if they were transported to that time. I wanted to live then as well. It is because I love some periods of the past and certain people who lived within them so much that I became a writer.
About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com.