This year’s National Academy of Writing lecture, in conjunction with Birmingham Book Festival, was given by popular author Robert Goddard. His lecture was entitled “What History Does Not Tell Us” – an intriguing title, and one of which he made good use. He talked widely about his own writing of historical fiction, proving to be an entertaining and lively as well as an informative speaker. He pointed out that historical novels tend to overstate the influence of historical events on their characters in a way which novels written in any given period do not, taking such things as read – as he rightly says, a writer doesn’t think s/he is living in the past, at the time of writing! He is clearly well-read and enthusiastic about a wide range of literature, proving most amusing on Sherlock Holmes (for example, discussing why Holmes cannot be found in the records of Cambridge University, though the novels say he went there; of course, this is because his arch-enemy Moriarty removed his name…)
His own novels he describes as “historical thrillers”, and suggested many reasons why plots are better set in the past: the old staples of nineteenth century fiction such as entails and disinheritance, now rendered obsolete by UK law, and the existence of capital punishment, are great plot devices. Modern writers, however, have escaped the problems of serialisation which led to inconsistencies in many Victorian works. Moreover, the modern police investigation requires a great understanding of science, which can cause problems for the unscientific writer.
Plots are tricky things, he says, which have to present a kind of toned-down reality; critics are keen to complain about use of coincidence in novels, yet coincidences happen all the time in life (as he said, no one ever says, “I’m sorry, it’s a coincidence” in real life!) – but if it is reality, there’s no point in arguing with it – perhaps as good a reason as any to draw plots from history.
Goddard is keen to point out that he never alters established historical facts in his novels, which is perfectly possible because of what history “does not tell us” – the unknowns open up a vast array of plot possibilities. As he rightly says, historians speculate, necessarily, and this begins to blur the line between history and fiction even before a novelist gets involved. Speculation can be as valid in fiction as in the history books – and, he added, historians don’t get it right all the time anyway. The question, perhaps, is what is historical truth – a debate that could go on forever.