Thursday, 28 February 2008

Rules for Writing Historical Fiction Set In Classical Times

I'm delighted to report to any historical fiction aficionados who aren't members of The Historical Novel Society that HNS member and author Susan Higginbotham has begun a New Wave of Official Rules in the HNS's Historical Novels Review (print only, I'm afraid). The first of these is on writing novels featuring Richard III. Should make the sparks fly. Meanwhile here are some of the old ones:


by Sarah Cuthbertson

I. Your Greek male characters must be philosophers, pederasts or homosexuals (but see Rule V). NB re Spartans: for 'philosophers' read 'stoics'. Your Greek females must be priestesses, nymph(omaniac)s or poets of the Sapphic persuasion. NB Spartan women should be wives/mothers/daughters who invariably instruct their menfolk to return home from war with their shields or on them.

II. Your Greek characters must always be witty, eloquent, learned and wise. (But see Rule X subsection v). Your Romans, though intellectual pygmies with no sense of humour or irony, can be relied upon to use the ablative absolute correctly when quoting Virgil or Cicero (which they must do at least once during any novel in which they appear).

III. Civilian Romans of either sex must (except for your Hero/Heroine) be any combination of decadent, fat, sleazy, grasping, politically corrupt or sexually depraved. They must be either bald (male) or afflicted with a high-rise hairdo (female). They must wear togas in all circumstances, however impractical (even the women). They must always consume (preferably to excess) stuffed dormice and braised lark’s tongues at least once during any novel in which they appear.

IV. Commissioned officers in the Roman Army must be anal-retentive control freaks with arrested libidos that can only be jump-started by comely Barbarian captive maidens. Such officers must always say, “The Roman Army is the greatest war machine the world has ever known” at least once during any novel in which they appear.

V. All Greek soldiers are Noble Heroes. All Barbarian warriors are Impassioned-But-Hopelessly-Disorganised Heroes. All Roman legionaries are Plundering (or Blundering) Rapists. The Plundering (or Blundering) Rapists must always win. (There’s a lesson here somewhere).

VI. Barbarians must always be portrayed as politically-correct Noble Savages, especially if Celtic. They must embrace sexual equality and be in total harmony with Nature and the Mystic Elements. They must always lose the battles but win the moral high ground (whatever that is), especially against The Greatest War Machine The World Has Ever Known. That’s probably the lesson (see Rule V).

VII. In battle against Greeks and Romans, Barbarian chariots always have scythes on their wheels, never mind that blades would do more damage to themselves than to the enemy. Britons must paint themselves with designer woad before going into battle. This is not optional.

VIII. Your Hero must find slavery, crucifixion and gladiatorial combat Morally Repugnant.

IX. Despite the evidence of Cicero, Pliny the Younger and various Roman tombstones, slaves are always ill-treated except of course by your Hero (see Rule VIII). Revolting slaves are invariably idealistic, selfless proto-Communists who want to change the world. They are never just people who want to go back where they came from.

X. Miscellaneous Rules

i. Roman roads never have bends in them. Therefore they must always be described as “arrow-straight” (NB for the sake of variation, “spear-straight” is an acceptable alternative).
ii. Christians are always Persecuted, usually by lions.
iii. Jews are invariably Stiff-Necked. Sometimes they are also Biblical (or Apocryphal).
iv. Druids are usually to be found looming out of Celtic mists to incite rebellion. Some of them are women.
v. All doctors are both quacks and Greeks.
vi. All Roman emperors are devious psychopaths with speech impediments who marry their sisters, appoint their horses to the Senate, fiddle while Rome burns and die from eating poisoned mushrooms (or dormice or larks’ tongues - see Rule III).

Next: a round-up of recent and forthcoming novels set in the Roman era. Then we'll see who's been heeding the Rules and who hasn't...

Monday, 25 February 2008

Lower Peover

Whilst staying with my parents recently, they took me for a walk in the Cheshire countryside which brought us to the tiny, almost hidden village of Lower Peover (no giggling in the back row there: it's pronounced Peever, not Pee-Over).

Here's the unusual parish church of St Oswald in Lower Peover:

It was originally built in about 1269, possibly, according to the church guidebook written by Rev Canon Sladden, who was its vicar from 1959-1986, in thanksgiving for peace after the rebellion of Simon de Montfort and to commemorate the release of men who had sided with him. St Oswald was the evangelising king of Northumbria who died at the hands of the heathen king Penda of Mercia at the Battle of Maserfield (probably Oswestry in Shropshire) in 642. His remains, the Canon tells us, were recovered later by his brother Oswy, who took them to be enshrined at Lindisfarne and Bamburgh, possibly passing through Peover on the way. The body of the church is one of the oldest timber-framed buildings of its type in Europe, whilst the tower is of red Cheshire sandstone. Here are some photos of its interior from the inestimable Cheshire Antiquities website.

There are other Peovers hereabouts: Peover Superior (or Over Peover), Nether Peover and Peover Heath. Near Over Peover is Peover Hall, an Elizabethan mansion with an Arts and Crafts garden. It was for a time during the Second World War the HQ of the American Third Army under General Patton.

According to the knowledgeable Canon Sladden, the name Peover comes from early British pevr meaning 'darting', 'sparkling' or 'bright', an apt description of the stream known as the Peover Eye which runs through the area. The Anglo-Saxons took over the name and added their own word for stream: thus it became 'Pevr Ee'.

Before we leave charming Lower Peover, here are some more photos:

The village street

The old school house

The village pump

Here are Mother and Dad outside St Oswald's

And here they are with my Auntie Kath at the birthday lunch we had on 2 February

I don't think they would mind me saying that they are in their eighties, lively, active and interested in everything - an inspiration to us all.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Book Review: The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies

If your father is Welsh, your mother Chinese-Malay and you were brought up mainly in England, your mind will probably dwell frequently on identity and belonging. So it is, I imagine, with Peter Ho Davies, whose novel The Welsh Girl turns on precisely those themes.

It's 1944, not long after D-Day. Young Esther lives with her widowed father on a sheep farm near a remote village in North Wales, where Welsh is everyone's first language and outsiders are distrusted, especially if they're English. She works part-time in the village pub where she meets English people for the first time, including soldiers, with one of whom she has a brief, rather brutal encounter before he's shipped off elsewhere. Soon after, a group of German prisoners of war is brought to a nearby disused holiday camp and Esther finds herself befriending Karsten, a German soldier full of alienating guilt at having surrendered his men on D-Day. How can he explain this in letters to his proud mother in Germany? Their relationship, mainly conducted through the camp's wire fence, is the main thread of the novel and is in touching contrast to her one-night stand with the English soldier, although Karsten is technically the enemy. Exposure first to the English, then to Germans, creates tension with her nationalistic father who (deliberately?) stumbles over his English, and makes Esther think about her own Welsh identity and what it means in the wider world.

The story of Esther and Karsten is bracketed by another: Rotheram, a British intelligence officer whose German-Jewish family fled to England when he was a child, is sent to North Wales to question Rudolf Hess in order to help determine whether he's sane enough to stand trial for Nazi war crimes. Obviously, Rotheram (I used to be a German, but now I'm just a Jew) is also wrestling with problems of belonging and identity. And so, rather more obliquely, is Hess.

If all this sounds rather contrived and message-driven, I didn't find it so. Peter Ho Davies has given us flesh-and-blood characters, not ciphers. Even minor characters like Harry the radio comedian, Jim the evacuee child and the mother of the Welsh lad who loves Esther are full of life. And if, unlike these let-it-all-hang-out times of ours, they seem unengagingly restrained in their emotions, that's surely authentic - people were like that in those days, which makes the story all the more moving.

And if the novel as a whole is understated and the story slow to take off, this is all to the good: we get to know the characters in their settings much as we get know the people we meet in real life, and for this reader, at any rate, they and their dilemmas stay in the mind long after the novel is finished.

Here's a perceptive article from The Observer on Peter Ho Davies and his work. It's particularly good on the historical background to The Welsh Girl and how its themes connect with the author's own life and background.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Funny Stuff and Bookish Snippets

An Archbishop of Canterbury Tale from Iowahawk.

That "wickedly subversive" Cambridge don, Mary Beard, reveals her next writing project: What Made The Romans Laugh.

What makes historians think they're qualified to write historical fiction? Joel Rickett in The Guardian reports that increasing numbers of academics are doing just that.

James Holland, The Burning Blue and A Pair of Silver Wings
Alison Weir, Innocent Traitor, The Lady Elizabeth
Simon Sebag Montefiore, Sashenka (Perhaps he got some handy tips from wife Santa Montefiore, who writes historical romances)
Katie Hickman, The Aviary Gate
Stella Tillyard, famous for the bestselling Aristocrats, has sold two historical novels, the first of which will be published in 2010.

Perhaps it's because the most popular historical non-fiction these days is being written by historians who know how to tell a good story with vividly drawn characters and convincing settings. As long as they resist the temptation to weigh down their fiction with a burden of historical detail, they should add greatly to the gaiety of (reading) nations. Which is more than can be said for this recent crop of hapless historicals (unless the reviewer is one of those snooty types who thinks historical fiction is all rather rubbish).

And then of course there's the mega-selling Philippa Gregory who has a history degree and published her first historical novel around the same time as she got her PhD in 18th-century literature. Here she is in The Times on how her novel The Other Boleyn Girl got the Hollywood treatment.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The All-Purpose Rules for Writing Historical Fiction/Ripping Yarns

A few years ago, The Official Rules for Writing Historical Fiction series appeared in Solander, the magazine of The Historical Novel Society. It was inspired by HNS member Alan Fisk’s posting on the HNS online discussion list and ran for several issues, having caught the imagination of certain HNS members who enthusiastically contributed their own sets of Rules. These Rules covered various historical fiction genres, including Arthurian, Medieval, Viking, Prehistoric, Victorian, English Civil War, American Civil War and Regencies. With permission from the various authors, I posted them on my original blog a couple of years ago. They proved popular, inspiring sundry bloggers to post yet more Rules for yet more genres on their own blogs. I'll see if I can still link to those.

In the hope that they may prove entertaining and instructive to aspiring historical novelists who didn't catch them the first time round, I'm reposting the original Rules here at regular intervals, beginning with Alan's initial contribution:

Here are the official rules for historical novels, as observed by me in many years of reading them:


by Alan Fisk

1. For novels set in the English Civil War, the Royalists must be the goodies and the Parliamentarians must be the baddies.

2. For novels set in the American Civil War, both sides are the goodies.

3. Christian characters must always be represented as unpleasant fanatics. Representing Muslim characters in this way is optional. You must not represent Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist characters as being anything but perfect.

4. No matter what the time or place of your novel, your hero/heroine must have the views of a right-on politically-correct person in a Western country circa 2000 A.D.

5. Money must never be an important factor in the lives of your characters.

6. You are welcome to write a novel about the British Celts heroically resisting the Anglo-Saxon invaders, but you must not write a novel about how the Beaker People felt about being invaded by the Celts some centuries earlier.

7. If your heroine becomes pregnant, she must always be astonished, in spite of everything that has happened in the last six chapters.

8. Your hero/heroine must never develop
a disgusting and disfiguring disease even if everyone else in the town has it.

9. Writing a historical novel set in any part of Africa south of the Sahara but north of South Africa is forbidden.

10. Nobody in your novel must ever play any kind of sports involving cruelty to animals or people, even if everyone else in that time and place practises them.

11. The first wife of your Napoleonic Wars naval hero always dies, usually in a coach accident, although smallpox has been used as an alternative. Your hero is now free to marry the woman with whom he has been carrying out a beautiful, but apparently doomed, adulterous relationship. (Her elderly husband is always killed by a convenient cannonball.) If the first wife has been engaging in an adulterous relationship of her own, this is entirely wicked and she will be punished for it by the aforementioned fatal coach crash.

12. Your hero must have a miraculous ability to survive fifty lashes from a cat-o’ -nine-tails without dying, or suffering permanent disability.

13. All housekeepers are wicked, and cr
uelly mistreat your mill-girl heroine, but the housekeeper always ends up being dismissed without references by the new master of the house, who also marries the mill-girl.

14. As the male author of a naval or military adventure series begins to age, instances of the hero successfully cuckolding an old fool become less frequent, and eventually cease.


by Alan Fisk

Alan writes: I admit that most of these rules were parodied in the Flashman books and in Carry On up the Khyber.

1. No native Indian ruler is to be trusted.

2. The hero pines for England/Scotland (never Wales or Ireland), but never goes there.

3. The hero always has an influential relative with the ear of the Viceroy.

4. The hero always comes up against a sneering Russian aristocrat.

5. The baddies always forget to cut the telegraph wires that carry news to HQ/Calcutta/London.

6. Even the most experienced soldiers always set out with insufficient water for the march.

7. Muslims and Hindus never show any inclination to fight each other.

8. There are no Lieutenants; every officer is at least a Captain.

9. All hairy naked wandering holy men are in fact English public school types in disguise.

10. Railway lines are curiously absent from the India of Ripping Yarns.

All of us who joined in this discussion had great fun satirising these cliches, but as with all satire, there is a serious, morally-improving lesson here: we should all avoid unconsciously repeating these tired old plots and characterisations yet again. For an instructive parody, John Barth’s novel The SotWeed Factor, set in seventeenth-century Maryland, sends up almost every tired old story element: amazing coincidences, vital diary extracts that can only be obtained after strenuous adventures, and which always break off at the most tantalising moment, etc., etc. I’ve only been able to find an American edition still in print, from Anchor Literary Library, August 1987 ISBN 0-385-24088-0, price $18.95.

Alan Fisk lives in London. Because of reading too many Roman historical novels, he is fat, bald, sleazy, decadent, and grasping (see the Rules for Writing Classical-Set Fiction, upcoming) and is the author of The Strange Things of the World (1988), The Summer Stars (1992 and 2000), Forty Testoons (1999), Lord of Silver (2000) and Cupid and the Silent Goddess (2003). His homepage, where you can find details of the latest editions of his books, and sample chapters thereof, is at

Next: The Rules for Writing Fiction set in Greek and Roman Times.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Out of the Mouths of Archbishops

I wonder if the Archbishop of Canterbury would have minded more what he was about if he'd read this* before his recent speech advocating the acceptance of some aspects of Muslim Sharia law in the United Kingdom. Obviously, he doesn't mean the kind of laws that condone the vile practices described in this Civitas report. Nor does he advocate the Sharia's infamous legal punishments that we've become all too familiar with of late. As I understand it, the Archbishop is referring to Sharia laws relating to civil matters such as marriage, divorce, custody of children and inheritance and that such recognition would be an alternative to, not a replacement for, UK laws.

Nevertheless, I should like clarification on the following (but am unlikely to get it from the Archbishop, to whom clarity appears to be anathema):
  • Is there a uniform codified version of Sharia law?
  • How can we square the unequal treatment of women under Sharia law with the principle of equality before the law that is enshrined in our own legal system?
  • Is it possible to adopt some aspects of Sharia law without encouraging demands (by the usual suspects) for the whole law to be adopted?
  • What would happen in the event that a judgment from a Sharia court contravened UK laws?
*(Crimes of the Community: Honour-Based Violence in the UK by James Brandon and Salam Hafez, Centre for Social Cohesion, 2008. Thanks to Butterflies and Wheels for the link). Amongst other things, this careful piece of research demolishes, effectively in my opinion, the Archbishop's glib assertion that adopting some parts of Sharia law would improve the social cohesion of Muslims into British society. Some of it will probably make your hair stand on end, especially if you're a woman.