Historical Fiction is definitely having a moment and as a writer and reader of the genre this makes me exceptionally happy! Looking at the impressive guest list and huge audiences at the History Festival held in Harrogate last weekend, there is no denying that history is definitely the cool kid in school. The festival drew speakers as diverse as Michael Morpurgo, Kate Mosse, Neil Oliver, Melvyn Bragg, Ken Follett and HRH Princess Michael of Kent, and offered intriguing panel discussions and talks on subjects and historical periods ranging from the World Wars to a century of perfume to John 1st and Thomas Cromwell. Far from being leaden and fusty, these writers bring history to life through gripping fiction and fascinating biographies and entertaining talks. Why are they drawn to the past? Because, as many of the guest speakers stated, within history lie the best stories of all.
Friday’s special guest speaker was the international bestselling author, Kate Mosse, who published her first novel Labyrinth in 2005 and over ten years has enjoyed a hugely successful career. Perhaps best known for her medieval set Languedoc trilogy Labyrinth, Sepulchre and Citadel, her latest novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a gothic novel set in 1912. In the festival Green Room, I spoke to Kate about why she thinks history appeals to readers and why the genre is enjoying a moment in the spotlight.
‘Often, when things seem a bit wobbly in the real world, people turn away from contemporary work and explore emotions and feelings in a safer backdrop,’ she explained. ‘The emotions people feel have not changed for millennia. Through books, readers want to be moved to cry, or feel anger or joy. Stories that are inspired by real history remind us that things have been terrible before and that it can get better again. History is often a safer backdrop than the contemporary.’
Kate’s passion for her subject matter is immediately apparent when she starts to talk about her writing. She tells me how her inspiration doesn’t come from a historical period, or a specific person or event, but that it always comes from the landscape. She describes herself as being relatively passive in terms of inspiration, that she doesn’t look for stories, they find her. ‘Voices whisper to me and tap me on the shoulder. For me, inspiration is entirely from place. Always place. I am never ever looking for a story. It always starts with being somewhere and hearing the voices, sensing that there’s a story I could tell here. Out of that comes the plotting, research, story etc.’ This level of connection to an idea is incredibly important to her. ‘If I read a novel that is a little disappointing, it usually feels as if the author is looking in at it from the outside. The best fiction in all genres and certainly in history is when the author is so deeply embedded that they are on the inside looking out.’
As a reader, Kate loves to also learn something from novels. ‘I want an absolute gripping, rip-roaring story, but I also want to learn something and to know more than when I went into the book. For many readers, the idea of being entertained is one of the joys of a novel, but it also has to be worth it.’ And of course, much of what her readers take from her novels comes first from the meticulous research she carries out, often taking this away from the archives and books and to very practical extremes! For example, during her research for The Taxidermist’s Daughter she was taught how to skin a crow by a taxidermist! ‘You have to respect your reader and what you are writing about. I admire the craft of taxidermy. I couldn’t write my character, Connie, and the joy and respect that the craft deserved unless I knew what it felt like.’ Similarly, for her novel Citadel she was taught how to shoot and for Labyrinth she was taught stage fighting with mediaeval battle swords.
When I ask her why she goes to such lengths, she talks about making a contract or pact with her readers, so that they know they are in safe hands and can trust her. ‘If the reader knows they can rely on the writer they can enjoy the book, give themselves over to the plot and the characters. If they are always thinking ‘hang on a second’, you put a barrier between the reader and the story. Research is a fundamental part of getting it right. You build your stage set and once you’ve done that you can do what you want.’
Anyone who writes – or reads – historical fiction will be familiar with the common question of what is real and what is imagined. When is it acceptable for the author to make stuff up; to blur the lines? Kate describes historical fiction as, ‘animating history. People have preconceived ideas about all periods of history. When reading a novel, they should not be thinking about it as history. What makes historical fiction work is: do we care about this character. That’s it. The real history is put in front of the reader as the backdrop to the imagined characters. ‘
As the Co-Founder and Chair of the Board of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (previously the Orange prize), Kate is thrilled to be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the awards. I asked her why she thinks the awards have been so successful. Why it works? ‘We have been very successful in connecting readers with amazing novels. We knew from the outset what we were doing: celebrating exceptional writing by women from all over the world. That was it. We wanted to bring six novels, written by women, into the public spotlight every year.’ She goes on to note that at the inception of the award, it wasn’t especially noted that all the Booker prize nominees that year were male. The impact of the Baileys prize is such that this now would be noted and commented upon. The landscape of literary awards is definitely changing, and Kate’s pride in the part the Baileys Prize has played in that is palpable.
A number of special events are taking place to mark the 20th anniversary of the awards. Visit the Baileys Prize website for details on these and the Best of the Best Live event which will celebrate the winning ten novels of the award over the second decade. The live event takes place in London at the Piccadilly Hotel on 2nd November. Tickets can be purchased via the website.
It was a real pleasure and a personal career highlight to interview Kate. She tells me that on 2nd January (because nobody starts anything new on 1st January!), she will be starting work on a new trilogy. ‘A Romeo and Juliet story about the Huguenots.’ She, herself, knows little more than that at the moment. From her research she has built her stage. Now the voices will begin to talk to her.
For more on the rise – and rise – of historical writing, see recent articles from The Guardian (History v Historical Fiction, from Jane Smiley and Niall Ferguson) and from Irish blogger and writer, Tara Sparling, who also has an interesting perspective on why historical fiction is having a moment.
Harrogate History Festival ran from 22-25th October at The Old Sawn Hotel, Harrogate. See http://harrogateinternationalfestivals.com/history/ for details, and to sign up for news of the 2016 festival.
(c) Hazel Gaynor
About The Taxidermist’s Daughter
Set on the flooded marshlands of the author’s native West Sussex, The Taxidermist’s Daughter transports the reader back to the Eve of St. Mark, 1912 and a churchyard in Fishbourne.
Standing alone, unseen between the graves, is Connie Gifford, daughter of the local taxidermist, who watches as the group that has gathered grows agitated and fearful. As the bells strike midnight, Connie doesn’t hear the scream, doesn’t realise that by the time she leaves the churchyard, someone will be dead, or that is represents only the first in a chain of macabre killings, each one more shocking than the last.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is a haunting and atmospheric novel, the dark and chilling events of which are mirrored in the unseasonal summer storm which threatens the village. As the floodwaters rise, so the novel escalates towards its dramatic conclusion.
The Taxidermist’s Daughter is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!
Hazel Gaynor is the author of New York Times and USA Today bestselling novels, The Girl Who Came Home and A Memory of Violets. The Girl Who Came Home won the 2015 Romantic Novelists’ Association Historical Romance Novel of the Year.
Hazel was chosen by US Library Journal as one of Ten Big Breakout Authors for 2015 and was the recipient of the 2012 Cecil Day Lewis award for Emerging Writers. She writes a popular guest blog ‘Carry on Writing’ for writing.ie and has interviewed authors such as Philippa Gregory, Sebastian Faulks, Rachel Joyce and Cheryl Strayed, among others.
Hazel’s third novel, The Girl From The Savoy will be published in the U.S., UK and Ireland in 2016. She has also contributed to WW1 anthology, Fall Of Poppies – Stories of Love and the Great War, which will be published in March 2016.
Originally from East Yorkshire, Hazel has lived in Ireland for the past fourteen years. She lives in Kildare with her husband and two children and is represented by Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management, New York.