Our former client Pete Langman, author of Killing Beauties, met his publisher John Mitchinson of Unbound at our Writing Coach ‘Google Academy’ event
Here he writes about how we transform archival material when writing historical fiction.
If it takes an historian to rediscover an exciting but little-known character’s life, the historical novelist can imagine them a new one. But how does this work, and what are the pitfalls? These questions were brought into sharp relief during the writing of Killing Beauties, a novel that follows the adventures of two female spies, Susan Hyde and Diana Jennings, in 1655/6, when England was a republic under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. These women dealt in information, and the novel begins the delivery of a message that will change their lives.
I was introduced to Susan and Diana by my partner, Dr Nadine Akkerman, as she was researching her (bloody splendid) book Invisible Agents: women and espionage in seventeenth-century Britain. She wasn’t that far into the task before it seemed as if Nadine was operating more as spycatcher than researcher, and it was only in the face of her relentless work that the she-intelligencers slowly gave up their secrets. As Nadine put ever more flesh on their archival bones, we began to realise that they were the perfect protagonists to star in a work of historical fiction. What was so promising about this pair was partially the fact that they were operating in the same circles at the same time, and yet don’t appear to have met, and partially the fact that their lack of excitement about the idea of being caught led to their tracks being pretty well covered over.
These women were slippery characters, and the archives would only give up so much information, making it difficult to work out an absolutely solid and continuous trajectory to their stories. This, of course, is not unusual, however, it’s just how history works. Archives rarely answer every question you put to them.
There are two approaches available to the historical novelist: to fictionalise history or historicise fiction. A fictionalised history is one in which a story is woven around actual events, while historicised fiction is one in which historical detail is inserted into a story. I would say I chose the former, but it would be more accurate to say that the former chose me.
Archives do not tell us everything. There are always gaps. Sometimes you can fill them in by using other sources (though this needs to be approached with care), but sometimes they simply insist on remaining as gaps. The primary site of divergence between the historian and the novelist is in the way they approach these gaps: for the former they are traps; the latter, portals. I could make the gaps work with me rather than against me.
The stories of Susan and Diana were very detailed in certain areas, and utterly obscure in others. Diana practically vanishes until the 1660s following her arrest in 1655, while Susan’s final few days on earth are recorded in a letter that also says her body was spirited away from prison by friends. Edward Hyde, her brother and the author of the History of the Rebellion fails to mention her death at the hands of Parliament. This omission, the reasons for which we can only speculate upon, gave me a great opportunity. I had a solid story of a woman risking all for king and country, and losing. The fact that she then vanishes from the records meant that I could do anything I wanted, within reason.
The opportunity that the archives presents to novelists
Where there is a lack of evidence, the historian must tread carefully, warily avoiding suppositions and remembering not to fall foul of the sin of repeating a ‘perhaps Shakespeare had seen X’ in the form of ‘having seen X, Shakespeare …’. The historian may speculate, but carefully, very, very carefully. Both historian and novelist chart the same territory, but the latter may draw the map that results however they wish.
People in the past appear more reliable, honest, predictable and knowable than we are for one reason – their stories are fixed in the history books. It is in that fixedness that we find the safety of truth. But truth, like the history presented in books, is in large part an illusion.
The stories of Susan and Diana were rich enough in information to show me the way, and yet it was the silence of the archives that allowed me the freedom to play.