I read an interesting article recently about writing historical fiction. The author, who has recently published her own historical novel, suggests that once you have found your protagonist you should dig deep into their character. Now this is good advice if you have access to that kind of information but in many cases (and especially in the case of women in history) all you have to work with is often just a small string of unconnected facts. This has been my problem in the main with my historical novel’s protagonist. She is high born, pious, courageous and loyal… and that’s about all we know of her. There are rumours, spread in the broadsheets of seventeenth century England, that she was the mistress of a high profile priest. I think it highly unlikely that she was guilty of moral laxity but there is always the chance… and it would make the novel meatier!
Here then is my dilemma – do I go for a story that matches, as close as I can get it, to the evidence that is available about her life? Or do I go for a more exciting and racy tale? I know what would sell better but the historian in me baulks at such blatant smearing of a well-respected woman’s name.
There are no pictures of my heroine, all I have to work with is a sixteenth century portrait of her father and that, frankly, is no help at all. It shows him dressed in all his aristocratic finery. His daughter, by all accounts, was a plain woman with no wish to marry, devoted to a life of prayer, chastity and obedience. Why you might ask am I writing about such a boring character? Because I know this woman was incredibly brave under duress, because she devoted her life to sheltering priests, a crime punishable by death in Elizabethan England… and because no-one is that straightforward. Somewhere in her complex character will be another woman – someone who would like to be able to settle for the normal life of a wife and mother, someone who would prefer the problems of running a household to that of finding a new place to hide from the brutal law enforcers who were pursuing her. Why did she, on a daily basis, risk her life and the lives of those she loved to protect men on the wrong side of the law?
Clearly it is going to be far more difficult to explain and make sympathetic this complex and fascinating character. I often ask myself why I’m not writing bodice rippers or chicklit… wouldn’t it be easier? Actually, I don’t believe it is because writing believably in any genre is just plain hard. Characterisation so that the reader cares what happens to the protagonist is a skill. There are a few writers who have achieved this and I am full of admiration for them. We’ll see in the fullness of time if I come anywhere close!