I've always loved history. Some of my favorite authors (Roberta Gellis, for one) could keep me enthralled for hours happily visiting medieval Europe. Those sort of epics completely immersed me in the culture of the times. I remember something Roberta Gellis once said about historical fiction. To para phrase, she said that history is a beautiful tapestry, rich with characters and events. The skilled author merely weaves a story in the existing threads of history.
So what’s the difference between an author who writes historicals and biographical historical fiction? I asked Susan that very question. I was curious what drew her to this type of fiction. She indulged my curiosity, with the following:
All of my four historical novels have been biographical historical fiction—that is, historical fiction centered around actual historical figures, as opposed to fiction that’s set in the past but where the main characters are entirely fictional.
So what draws me to biographical fiction? For one thing, for the lazy plotter, it’s a godsend. The outline of my story is there; all I have to do is add the fun stuff—the dialogue, the motivations, the characterizations. For another, it gives me a chance to go where the responsible historian dare not tread: I can resolve unsolved mysteries, choose which conflicting account of an event to believe, explain a character’s actions where the historian can only speculate.
There are two other reasons that writing biographical fiction especially appeals to me, however. First, through biographical historical fiction, a novelist can bring to life a little-known historical figure—one who might not be important enough to merit more than a line or two in history books, but whose life was fascinating or inspiring. For instance, my first novel, The Traitor’s Wife, features Eleanor de Clare, the niece of Edward II and the wife of his notorious favorite Hugh le Despenser the younger. Eleanor survived her husband’s horrific execution, her own imprisonment in the Tower, and the forced veiling of her daughters; she was also the subject of litigation challenging the validity of her second marriage. How did she find the strength to endure these ordeals, any one of which might have overwhelmed a lesser woman? The Traitor’s Wife allowed me to answer this question. In doing so, I hope it shed some light not only on Eleanor’s courage, but on the incredible strength of medieval women in general. They were no damsels in distress, waiting for their shining knight in armor.
Another reason for writing biographical historical fiction is the chance to portray a maligned figure in a sympathetic light. Margaret of Anjou, the heroine of The Queen of Last Hopes, has been vilified by everyone from her Yorkist opponents to modern novelists. Yet when I encountered her in researching my third novel, The Stolen Crown, I got a picture of a very different woman: a woman who struggled against overwhelming odds to uphold the rights of her husband and her son to the English crown. Only when all was lost did she give up—and even then, her fight laid the foundation for the Tudor dynasty.
Writing this biographical novel about Margaret allowed me to share my own view of the woman I had come to deeply respect and to admire—and, I hope, to change the minds of those who have seen her portrayed in fiction only as an insanely vengeful, twisted she-wolf.
But if those aren’t good enough reasons to write biographical historical fiction, I can suggest five more:
- 1. If your hero is riddled with angst, it'll be because someone is trying to overthrow him, not because he is having a mid-life crisis.
- 2. You can buy all sorts of books in your field of interest and tell your spouse that they are for research purposes.
- 3. You will not have to write 400 pages about a woman who is juggling her family and her career.
- 4. You can kill off your main character once you get tired of him or her, and blame it all on history.
- 5. You’ll never be at a loss as to what to name your main characters.
The Queen of Last Hopes--Story of Margaret of Anjou
When fifteen-year-old Margaret of Anjou journeys from France to marry England’s Henry VI, she hopes that her wedding will mean a lasting peace between England and France. Instead, England’s losses of French territory infuriate the people, resulting in the horrific murder of Margaret’s first friend in England, William de la Pole.
Pregnant at last after eight years of marriage, Margaret places her hopes in her coming child. Then the worst happens: the gentle, ineffectual Henry suddenly goes mad and cannot even recognize his longed-for son. As feuding nobles rush to exploit the situation, Margaret determines to protect the rights of her husband and her child.
Undaunted by exile, poverty, danger, and the slanders of her enemies, Margaret remains loyal to her cause even as those around her falter in their allegiances. For the man and the boy she loves best, she will risk everything—her reputation, her safety, and the future of England itself. Excerpt
So which do you prefer, historical fiction about real historical figures or historical fiction about purely fictional ones?