You are appearing at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum's Historical Fiction Day on Sunday, 5th August. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
In the wake of the boom in historical novels, the relationship between academic history and historical fiction has become a subject of great interest to historians. As historians who also write historical novels, Kate Williams and I will be discussing our own moves into fiction and voicing our views and concerns, posing the questions: why have historical novels become 'respectable', and why anecdotally are historians being encouraged to write them? What is the difference between historical fiction and academic history, and how rigid are the boundaries between the two these days? How good are readers at differentiating between 'fact' and 'fiction' and how much does it matter if they don't? Is it easier to write a historical novel based on a real character than one about one who is entirely fictional? Does the success of historical fiction benefit or threaten academic history, and what can literary authors and historians learn from each other?
You have visited the museum several times before, so what encourages you to keep going back?
It's a wonderful place, somewhere you can immerse yourself in living history, where the lives of ordinary people through the centuries are made vivid reality for a few precious hours. Imagine what it was like to be a fourteenth-century peasant, a prosperous fifteenth-century yeoman farmer, a toll-booth keeper or a Victorian country school child. More than any documented evidence, these immaculately rescued and restored buildings give us an immediate sense of the past.
Do you have a favourite time period or section of the museum that captures your interest more than another?
I love it all, but the Bayleaf Farmhouse draws me in again and again, as it relates to a period – the late fifteenth century – with which I am very familiar. All the medieval buildings resonate with me – they are incredible survivals, and it’s amazing to see them restored to their original state.
You will be meeting up with writers such as Maria McCann, Jane Borodale, Emma Darwin, Michael Arnold, R.N. Morris, Gabrielle Kimm, Jane Feaver, Siobhan Clarke, Lesley Parker and Kate Williams on the day. How important is it, as a writer, that you connect with others to form a writing community?
I think it’s very helpful to be able to get together with other writers to discuss individual experiences of what is essentially a solitary occupation. It’s important to have professional support networks, and it’s intellectually stimulating to exchange ideas.
You, Siobhan and Kate are part of the History Girls group. Can you expand upon this for us?
The History Girls – that’s me, Kate Williams, Siobhan Clarke, Sarah Gristwood and Tracy Borman - are all about history with attitude. The History Girls are best-selling, critically acclaimed and engaging historians whose expertise spans more than 1,000 years of history. We work together professionally, giving joint talks and interviews, and looking at key historic figures and moments from an insightful and lively female perspective, offering a timely investigation of the vital roles that women have played in history. In 2011, we published our first book, The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066-2011, for Hutchinson. We deal with famous names and major events, but always try to come at them from a new angle, with human stories and fascinating detail, revealing a new insight into the lives of those who lived history; both the high and mighty, and the ordinary people of the past.
Whose writing style do you admire the most?
The novelist Norah Lofts’. I have all 64 of her books.
How important do you believe it is to keep history alive through the medium of fiction?
I think it’s important to keep history alive – or rather, to make it live for people - through sound research and accessible books, be they fiction or non-fiction.
Why do you think there has been a surge in historical fiction?
For the best part of three decades, you could only obtain historical novels (such as are popular now) in libraries. Publishers wouldn’t touch them. Then someone took a risk and published Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl. Against all the odds, it was a roaring success, because it filled a crucial gap in the market. And then, of course, other publishers started commissioning historical fiction, and a new genre was established.
How can you achieve historical accuracy in fiction without it sounding too much like a history book?
You ‘show rather than tell’, and use your imagination credibly, keeping to the historical record where it exists.
Lucy Walton Female First