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Writing a novel set against an actual historical backdrop might seem easy at first blush. I refer to the simple fact that, unlike the science fiction or fantasy genres (in which one is almost obliged to construct a Tolkienesque landscape with a myriad of cultures, languages, and species), history, by contrast, provides us with ready-built cultures, cartographies and casts of characters. Presto! Instant context. But historical fiction comes with its own conundrums and pitfalls for the unwary writer.
Tom Clancy once said, “The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.” But what if your fiction is based on reality or real events? Add to this mix the old maxim that sometimes “Fact is stranger than fiction.” See where I’m going?
My novel is set in the 18th-century and the principal characters were real people who fought each other at the Siege of Quebec in 1759 during the war popularly known as the French and Indian War. Rather than focussing on who won or lost, or who was good or who was evil, my novel is about leadership and how the stresses and strains of war play upon the human condition and its impact on the ability to command men.
While I’ve never experienced an 18th-century battle, I’m a professional soldier and a published military historian, and what I know of 18th-century warfare is gleaned from memoirs, maps and “walking the ground”. In order to show a true picture of leadership at Quebec, I could not portray it solely through the eyes of the Great Captains present. Thus their lieutenants and subordinates also have their say and also peer up at their commanders and us through the fog of war. Their dialogue is not recorded anywhere, and thus the fiction is in the reconstruction of what they might have said.
As much as possible, I have based my novel on primary source materials. Some of the dialogue has been lifted from actual letters or memoirs to give the voices of my characters a greater ring of authenticity. But here, one must be very careful. The style of discourse in the day was quite formal and archaic by 21st-century standards, and the difference in speaking, as well as the accents, vastly differed between the lower, middle and upper classes.
The historical fiction writer must walk a tightrope in deciding how far one goes in being authentic. On one hand, using idiomatic expressions and slang of the day will give a true ring of authenticity to your dialogue, but you run the danger of confuzzling the general reader to the point that they are no longer enjoying the plot and narrative and they throw down the book in despair. Think of Shakespeare with tomahawks and wigs. On the other hand, you do not want to use 21st-century expressions or slang that will lift your readers out of a stirring bayonet charge or salacious salon scene with a jarring anachronistic thud.
My guides and mentors in writing historical fiction have been two very popular, prize-winning authors who both have large devoted bands of followers, but each have taken slightly different approaches to their writing of historical dialogue. The late Patrick O’Brien, best known for his characters Jack Aubrey and Dr Steven Maturin featured in “Master and Commander”, kept true to 18th-century language and culture in his some 22 novels, including the use of nautical terminology and expressions (which required a glossary in every book so that the reader could understand the various parts of the sailing ship). By contrast, Bernard Cornwell, well known for his Sharpe series, as well as his Arthurian and Saxon novels, uses plain dialogue for the most part and relies on his evocative descriptions of pre-gunpowder battle and Napoleonic warfare to heighten the drama. I like to think in my writing, I walk a tightrope between these two pillars of historical writing.
Here’s a small sample:
Wolfe started to rub the itchy scaling on the backs of his scurvy-poxed hands, then placed his small telescope to his eye once more. He had hoped to land without much resistance on the Beauport shore just north of this island, then hold it with the fortified camps and blockhouses like he had used at Louisburgh the previous year. It seems now I’ll be forced to set up my base of operations a lot further from the city than expected. This will be a damn tough nut to crack.
Wolfe snapped his spyglass shut. "Major McKellar. It seems we have a skilful adversary in Monsieur Montcalm, well-versed in the intricacies of siege warfare."
"Aye, sir. None o' that nonsense was here when I left. Those French poltroons have been busy as bees."
"Bees ain’t in it, Patrick! Some of those batteries and redans are still under construction. I’ll wager they've only been at it a month at most."
If only Admiral Durrell had been on his station off the mouth of the St Lawrence waiting for the ice to break up, instead of living a life of profligacy in Halifax. Then Montcalm would never have received advanced warning of our coming. By thunder, Quebec would have been ripe for the picking.