Taking History Seriously When Writing Novels: What Makes a Historian?
by Nancy Bilyeau, Author of The Tapestry
I AM NOT A HISTORIAN
There. I said it.
I’m still alive. 😀
More and more, it appears that historical novelists are positioning themselves as historians. Readers demand accuracy in their fiction set in the past—authors certified in history can supply it.
Philippa Gregory’s website begins with this statement: “Philippa Gregory was an established historian and writer when she discovered her interest in the Tudor period and wrote the novel The Other Boleyn Girl which was made into a TV drama and a major film.”
I’ve seen other websites and interviews and book jackets in which the novelists either proudly proclaim it or weave the word into their background: “historian.” It’s become something of a magical word, and not just because it was the title of one of my favorite books: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (That book mixed digging for obscure historical facts in quiet libraries with…Dracula!)
I’ve never made this claim for myself because I believe I lack the necessary credentials…don’t I?
Let’s take a look at the description in Merriam Webster: 1. “a student or writer of history; especially: one who produces a scholarly synthesis. 2.: a writer of compiler of a chronicle.”
Another definition: “historian: an expert in or student of history, especially that of a particular period, geographical region, or social phenomenon.”
- I studied history for my bachelor’s degree at the University of Michigan. After I “broke the curve” of a test given in the early 20th century American history class taught by Professor Sidney Fine, himself a nationally known historian and a Guggenheim Fellow, Professor Fine invited me to his Ann Arbor house. He offered me lemonade and we drank it on his elegant wooden porch as he suggested that I pursue a master’s degree in history. I realize now that this was it: the secret handshake, the door opening to the chamber in which dwelled historians.
But I didn’t pass through the door. I was eager to launch myself on the world of work, not remain at the university, pursuing another degree. (I know: Nuts!)
Without advanced degrees in history, one cannot claim to be a historian. At least, that’s what I’ve always assumed. If you read those definitions above one more time, they don’t specify any sort of degree. Still, I shy away from putting this word on my website, bio, book jacket or facebook page. Just doesn’t seem right.
Here’s the experience I do offer readers of my work:
Journalist—at newspapers and then at magazines, I learned on the job how to assess facts, assimilate information and structure a story. I’ve always had an image in my mind of being trained by a historian—a distinguished older man, bearded of course (looking like Professor Fine!), leans over a student at work on the thick table, chiding, “No! Can’t you tell that those are discredited documents? What am I going to do with you??” But I do seek accuracy and practice skepticism. In my years in media, if I made a mistake it did more than earn the disfavor of the bearded professor. It could lead to a printed correction and maybe the boot!
Working as a reporter also made me rather…assertive. When I was frustrated with my research on The Crown, trying to find elusive details about being confined in the 1530s in the Tower of London, I decided to go to the source. I used the “contact” email on the website for the Tower and didn’t stop bothering them until they referred me to someone with access to documents. I’ve since worked my way through two curatorial interns. One emailed me a PDF of Edward Seymour’s diet sheet while he was imprisoned, another pulled together every contemporary fact about the beheading on Tower Hill of Thomas Cromwell. (Don’t let anyone tell you he died at Tyburn!)
History lover—I did like my study of history at the University of Michigan. But since I was 11 years old I have loved reading on my own about centuries past, primarily stories set in Europe and, of course, Tudor England. I pored over every biography I could find on Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The historical fiction that first captured my heart was written by Norah Lofts, Jean Plaidy, Mary Stewart and Anya Seton. Later on, I devoured Mary Renault, Robert Graves, Margaret George, Bernard Cornwell, C.W. Gortner, Kate Quinn, Patricia Bracewell and Mary Sharratt.
Storyteller – As a writer of narrative nonfiction for 20 years, I learned a great deal from my editors on clarity, pacing and the need for the right descriptive detail. I’ve tried to pass these lessons on to the writers I edit too. I also wrote three screenplays before beginning The Crown, and learned from teachers such as screenwriter Max Adams how to write visually and describe characters with the right evocative phrase.
I always wonder what other historical novelists feel about the “historian” question. For this blog post, I decided to ask a few. (Remember, I am assertive 😀 )
Erika Robuck, author of fantastic historical fiction like Hemingway’s Girl and the soon-to-be-published The House of Hawthorne, says, “”I think a historian is an expert in a time period or culture, and holds a degree to support that level of expertise. I am an enthusiast, not an historian.”
Eva Stachniak, who has written two of my favorite historical novels, The Winter Palace and Empress of the Night, says, “As a writer of historical novels, I have to know my history, in and out, understand it on many levels, political, social, cultural. I have to be able to imagine how everyday life was lived at the time when my novel is set. For my two Catherine the Great novels, I studied the life of the Russian court, not just its politics, but also its everyday routines. I researched spies and spying, dressmaking, bookbinding, medical procedures and the ins and outs of 18th century renovations. Does it make me a historian? I am not convinced. But it makes me a student of history. It makes me re-imagine the exiting research in a creative way. However, even if I make no claims to being a historian, I claim my passion for history and my ability to make it seem alive for my readers.”
My friend Sophie Perinot, author of Sister Queens and Medicis Daughter: A Novel of Marguerite de Valois (pub date: December 2015), has thought about this question even more than I have. She had some fascinating things to say:
“I am not a historian, despite having a BA in history–at least when I have my novelist hat on–because my work isn’t driven by history, or entirely limited by it.
“I’ve had to give serious thought to the line between what I call “H”istory (academic history) and history as portrayed by novelists. I’ve discussed the subject in a pair of lectures given to university history students during their unit on the uses of undergraduate history degrees after graduation. And I think most historical novelists grapple with the “who is a historian” question because Historical Fiction is undeniably a pop culture way that people today consume history, and those of us who write it are keenly aware that lots of fans blur the line between NON-FICTION HISTORY and the FICTIONALIZED HISTORY OF HISTORICAL NOVELS.
“Let me start by saying that I have a background in history having graduated with a BA in that subject—but I don’t write BIG “H” history, nor, in my opinion does any other writer in my genre. Professors write BIG “H” academic history ( I have a sister who is a professor of history so I have tremendous respect for academic historians).
“Why do I say this? Well first and foremost a novelist’s work is not driven by the overt goal of educating readers on a particular period or by presenting an overview of a historical issue or time. The historical novelist’s work is driven by considerations of plot and theme—by the desire to tell a universal story that is set in the past but transcends it.
“So, I am not a historian, at least when I have my novelist hat on, because my work isn’t driven by history, or entirely limited by it. BUT if I write first rate historical fiction – and I’d like to think I do – then in telling my story I want to be true to historical facts as we know them. Good historical novelists use the same sorts of resources that students of history would use to write an academic paper—JSTOR, scholarly journal articles, primary sources, and secondary sources (biographies, prior histories).”
I hope that when you read my historical thrillers, or the fiction by Erika Robuck, Eva Stachniak or Sophie Perinot, you’ll relish not just the story but the awareness that we take our history very seriously—even if we don’t call ourselves historians.
Of that, I think, even Professor Fine would approve.
Check out Nancy’s newest book, The Tapestry, which is the third in her Joanna Stafford Historical Mystery Series! If you haven’t ready any of Nancy’s trilogy, The Crown is book one and The Chalice is book two.
The Tapestry, Synopsis and Info~
US Publication Date: March 24, 2015
UK Publication Date: April 24, 2015
Formats: eBook, Hardcover
Series: Joanna Stafford, Book Three
Genre: Historical Mystery
In THE CROWN, Sister Joanna Stafford searched for a Dark Ages relic that could save her priory from Cromwell’s advancing army of destruction. In THE CHALICE, Joanna was drawn
into an international conspiracy against Henry VIII himself as she struggled to learn the truth behind a prophecy of his destruction.
Now, in THE TAPESTRY, Joanna Stafford finally chooses her own destiny.
After her Dominican priory in Dartford closed forever—collateral damage in tyrannical King Henry VIII’s quest to overthrow the Catholic Church—Joanna resolves to live a quiet and honorable life weaving tapestries, shunning dangerous quests and conspiracies. Until she is summoned to Whitehall Palace, where her tapestry weaving has drawn the King’s attention.
Joanna is uncomfortable serving the King, and fears for her life in a court bursting with hidden agendas and a casual disregard for the virtues she holds dear. Her suspicions are confirmed when an assassin attempts to kill her moments after arriving at Whitehall.
Struggling to stay ahead of her most formidable enemy yet, an unknown one, she becomes entangled in dangerous court politics. Her dear friend Catherine Howard is rumored to be the King’s mistress. Joanna is determined to protect young, beautiful, naïve Catherine from becoming the King’s next wife and, possibly, victim.
Set in a world of royal banquets and feasts, tournament jousts, ship voyages, and Tower Hill executions, this thrilling tale finds Joanna in her most dangerous situation yet, as she attempts to decide the life she wants to live: nun or wife, spy or subject, rebel or courtier. Joanna Stafford must finally choose.
Praise for The Tapestry~
“Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books and transports us back to the dangerous world of Tudor England. Vivid characters and gripping plots are at the heart of this wonderful trilogy, and this third book will not fail to thrill readers. Warmly recommended!” – Bestselling Author Alison Weir
“Illuminated by Bilyeau’s vivid prose, minor players of Tudor England emerge from the shadows.” —Kirkus Reviews
“In THE TAPESTRY, Nancy Bilyeau brilliantly captures both the white-hot religious passions and the brutal politics of Tudor England. It is a rare book that does both so well.” —Sam Thomas, author of The Midwife’s Tale
“In spite of murderous plots, volatile kings, and a divided heart, Joanna Stafford manages to stay true to her noble character. Fans of Ken Follett will devour Nancy Bilyeau’s novel of political treachery and courageous love, set amid the endlessly fascinating Tudor landscape.” —Erika Robuck, author of Hemingway’s Girl
“These aren’t your mother’s nuns! Nancy Bilyeau has done it again, giving us a compelling and wonderfully realized portrait of Tudor life in all its complexity and wonder. A nun, a tapestry, a page-turning tale of suspense: this is historical mystery at its finest.” —Bruce Holsinger, author of A Burnable Book and The Invention of Fire
“A supremely deft, clever and pacy entertainment. This is Nancy Bilyeau’s most thrilling—and enlightening—novel in the Joanna Stafford series yet.” —Andrew Pyper, author of The Demonologist and The Damned
“A master of atmosphere, Nancy Bilyeau imbues her novel with a sense of dread and oppression lurking behind the royal glamour; in her descriptions and characterizations… Bilyeau breathes life into history.” —Laura Andersen, author of The Boleyn King
Purchase The Tapestry~
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Author Nancy Bilyeau, Biography~
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of InStyle, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Ladies Home Journal. She is currently the executive editor of DuJour magazine.
Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.
Her screenplay “Zenobia” placed with the American Zoetrope competition, and “Loving Marys” reached the finalist stage of Scriptapalooza.
A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan. THE CROWN, her first novel, was published in 2012; the sequel, THE CHALICE, followed in 2013. THE TAPESTRY released March 24, 2015.
Nancy lives in New York City with her husband and two children. Stay in touch with her on Twitter at @tudorscribe. For more information or to sign up for Nancy’s Newsletter please visit her official website.
To enter to win one of three signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry, please complete the giveaway form below.
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- Giveaway starts on March 16th at 12:01 a.m. EST and ends at 11:59 p.m. EST on April 3rd.
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