Historical fiction has a mixed and interesting history. Sir Walter Scott, who probably started the genre, managed to seriously mangle Scottish history with his. (I admit it. I dislike Scott) Dumas the Pere may have mangled French history but is still beloved by many of us.
It was out of fashion for a long time in spite of the successes of some writers such as Sharon Kay Penman. For those of us who love (and incidentally write) this genre, Hilary Mantel’s Booker Award for her marvellous Wolf Hall is encouraging. There is hope for sales in this genre, I sincerely believe.
I, frankly, do not include historical romance in my discussion. While loved by many, I don’t read historical romances and have no real interest in novels in which the emphasis is on the romance, all too often at the utter cost of historical accuracy. For me, and you are free to disagree, historical accuracy is essential to good historical fiction. There is ample room for creativity within the confines of accuracy. Look at the complete divergence of A Man for All Seasons and Wolf Hall.
Expectation of a sale is not why I wrote my first historical novel, though, which is still being pitched by my agent. I wrote it because I love Scottish history and have spent years studying it and because years ago I fell in love with my main character, Sir James Douglas, who was widely referred to as the Black Douglas. Unfortunately, the story of Douglas has been largely lost behind those of such Scottish heroes as William Wallace and Scotland’s great king and savior, Robert the Bruce. As great as those two men are, Douglas should stand beside them.
Douglas was essential to the Scottish victory against the English in the Scottish War of Independence, and, in my opinion, was one of the greatest of history’s guerrilla leaders. He was also a fascinating man. It is of a lot of interest that in Johne Barbour’s The Brus (written in about 1370 some forty years after Douglas’s death) Douglas was as much the hero as the Bruce. In fact, Barbour gave one of the first physical descriptions in epic poetry with a paean to Douglas. Translated from its original Scots, it reads:
But he was not so fair that we
Should praise his looks in high degree…
His hair was black, so I heard say,
His limbs were finely made and long,
His bones were large, his shoulders strong,
His body was well-knit and slim
And those say that set eyes on him,
When happy, loveable was he,
And meek and sweet in company,
But those with him in battle saw
Another countenance he wore!
He wasn’t a hard character to love. Disinherited by the English after his father’s death (probably from starvation) in the Tower of London, Douglas returned from hiding in France where he had been sent to Scotland where he was a page to the patriot bishop, William Lamberton, a close associate of both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.
When the Bruce began his rebellion against the English occupation of Scotland, Douglas, still a boy of only about eighteen or nineteen, was among the first to swear fealty to the new Scottish king. He followed Bruce through defeat, retreat, hiding, suffering and loss. Scots were not only killed in battle but executed by the hundreds, including three of Robert the Bruce’s brothers and most of their close friends.
However, through tenacity and unimaginable courage, the war was turned around. One of the first of the Scottish victories was Douglas’s re-taking of his own castle, an incident referred to by the Scots as the “Douglas Larder” when he burned the castle after executing the few English who survived the battle. Although he has since been accused of brutality in that execution, there is little doubt that from his perspective (and that of the time) it was a logical if regrettable action in order to hide the identity of the local population who aided him. And remember, he was at this point at most, twenty years old.
What followed was another twenty years of warfare in which he was one of three of the most important leaders of the Scottish army and many would say the man most feared by the English until he lead one of the four wings of the Scottish army at the Battle of Bannockburn.
Anyway, that gives you an idea of the reasons for my fascination with the Black Douglas. I put a lot of work into making the novel historically accurate as well as in portraying a fascinating man. Will the novel sell is always a question. Darn if I know. It only portrays the first portion of Douglas’s career. There would be a lot more to tell.
However, whether that novel sells or not, (I do have another I’ve written since) in this blog I want to discuss historical fiction in general and some historical novels that have been published, as well writing problems and techniques.
I hope you enjoy and take part in the discussion.