IS IT HISTORICAL OR IS IT FICTION?
I received an email the other day from a reader who had come across HAREM, a novel I have sold around the world, about the only Ottoman concubine to ever become a queen.
She liked the first chapter, and wrote to me: ‘… before I read any more, I want to know if it’s all factual and true.’
I recently watched a re-run of ‘The Untouchables.’ The movie has one of the best suspense scenes, for my money, in the history of film-making. There is that wonderful set up at Chicago’s Grand Central Station where the gangsters walk in, armed to the teeth, just as the mother is pulling the baby up the stairs in a pram.
CHICAGO GRAND CENTRAL
photograph: Vincent Desjardins
Yet an historical novelist could never write UNTOUCHABLES without getting slaughtered by the reading community. For instance; Frank Nitti never fell to his death after a fight with Elliot Ness – he committed suicide in an Illinois rail yard when he was 57.
Ness’s accountant Oscar, who Nitti shoots dead in an elevator in the movie, was loosely based on Frank J Wilson, the Treasury department agent who was the one who really had Capone convicted. He died in his bed at 83.
And so on.
Even that giant of English literature, William Shakespeare, got away with murder more times than Capone.
For instance, people see “Richard III” and believe in life that he was monstrous, conniving and immoral. But the unbiased evidence of various chroniclers, both before and after Richard’s reign, describe a just ruler, a caring uncle, and a loyal brother.
If Hollywood kept to the script, no movie would ever get made. The Deer Hunter, for example; there is absolutely no basis in fact for gambling clubs acting as venues for games of Russian Roulette in wartime Saigon. But the film used it as a metaphor for war and did it brilliantly.
It is still ranked as one of the best films ever made. But historically accurate? No.
Or there’s Braveheart; its historical inaccuracies are legion. (William Wallace could not have had a union with Princess Isabella of France and sired a son with her, as she was just nine years old when he died; and the Scots did not wear kilts until centuries later.)
William Wallace photograph: Kjetil Bjornsrud
But novelists – well, we finagle with history at our peril. Books are subject to quite different criteria to film. It is both the genre’s strength and its weakness.
When someone reads a good thriller, they don’t ask: is it well researched – they only want to know – is it exciting?
But read an historical novel and the first question is – is it true?
How far should Alice go down this particular rabbit hole? For example, if we used absolutely historically correct language in a medieval novel no one would be able to read it; Middle English is more difficult than Mandarin. And then there’s the social milieu; women for much of western history were regarded as chattels.
Treating a woman as a domestic slave or a breeding machine is great for the villain in your story. But how will twentieth century audiences react to such behaviour from your hero – even when it’s historically accurate?
I advocate good research and historical accuracy wholeheartedly and I won’t be relaxing my own diligence when it comes to research.
But why is Hollywood allowed so much licence from the audiences, if not the critics, in historical movies? The bar for a screenwriter is significantly lower.
I wonder why that is?
But yes, gentle reader of HAREM, the novel’s historical facts are all veriable and true. But is that what Suleiman the Magnificent and his pashas and concubines were thinking and is that what they were doing behind closed doors?
Well. You’ll have to ask the guy who wrote The Untouchables about that.
She was taught to obey. Now she has learned to rebel.
12 year old Isabella, a French princess marries the King of England – only to discover he has a terrible secret. Ten long years later she is in utter despair – does she submit to a lifetime of solitude and a spiritual death – or seize her destiny and take the throne of England for herself?
Isabella is just twelve years old when she marries Edward II of England. For the young princess it is love at first sight – but Edward has a terrible secret that threatens to tear their marriage – and England apart.
Who is Piers Gaveston – and why is his presence in the king’s court about to plunge England into civil war?
The young queen believes in the love songs of the troubadours and her own exalted destiny – but she finds reality very different. As she grows to a woman in the deadly maelstrom of Edward’s court, she must decide between her husband, her children, even her life – and one breath-taking gamble that will change the course of history.
This is the story of Isabella, the only woman ever to invade England – and win.
In the tradition of Philippa Gregory and Elizabeth Chadwick, ISABELLA is thoroughly researched and fast paced, the little known story of the one invasion the English never talk about.
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Genre – Historical Fiction
Rating – PG-13