For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a passion for history.
When I was very young, I would devour any books, films, and TV programmes that had an historical setting. It enthralled me and fired my imagination. At the age of ten my favourite movie was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But here’s the thing – I got the jokes, laughed in all the right places, but that’s not what I was really there for. I was in it for the costumes, the setting, the worldbuilding... It all felt so deeply evocative to my young mind.
To this day, give me a crumbling castle ruin, a dusty old stately home, or an ancient, bow-beamed pub, and I can happily stay for hours, imagining the lives of those that have passed this way before me. What did they think? How did they live? The space where history meets imagination is a form of time travel. It allows us to get inside the heads of people from centuries past – times immeasurably different to our own, yet often more similar than we might think.
My debut novel, The Lost Diary of Samuel Pepys, is a mystery thriller that imagines what happened next in the life of the famous diarist, after he put down his pen in 1669. Of course, I knew that it would have to be meticulously researched. I don’t think readers expect accuracy in all things, but I also believe that the second worst sin of historical fiction is to knowingly mislead. (The worst is to be boring). Like any history nerd, I love reading about the purely factual side of our past, but knowledge and understanding are two different things. The first requires study. The second, you can’t do without imagination.
So when writing the book, I had a golden rule – never to treat the characters as if they’re living in the past. I don’t mean writing them like they were people from the 21st century, but rather to think of them as human beings with lives outside the historical events they experienced. To me, the kiss of death for historical fiction is when people swan around, talking with great importance about great events, or behaving like one-dimensional ciphers defined by nothing more than their position in society.
It’s my job to know enough about a period to write convincingly – but never to forget that my characters are people. They would have thought just like us in some ways, and nothing like us in others. Theirs is a world so familiar to us, and yet so alien. The way they lived and behaved. The way they felt.
Without a genuine passion for history, I could do none of that. Without passion there can be no empathy, and without empathy, no understanding. And I hope that translates onto the page in the form of living, breathing, characters.
Then, of course, I turn their worlds upside down and put them through absolute hell. But I couldn’t possibly say more. Spoilers...