"Don't Know Much About History..."

Well, actually I know rather a lot about history, having pursued it through three academic degrees, but the title caught your eye, didn’t it? What I wanted to share today is about my new novel, Lethal Alliances, and about writing historical fiction in general.

An inspired—and inspirational—whodunit writer from the Golden Age of mystery fiction, Josephine Tey, wrote a novel that in some ways could be construed as historical fiction: her conceit was two people in modern times solving a medieval mystery. I return to that book—The Daughter of Time—on a fairly frequent basis, mostly to remind myself of many things about excellent writing (there’s no writing class that teaches as much about writing as does reading). And when I was thinking about this post, I went back to it again.

“Look, Mr. Grant, let’s you and I start at the very beginning of this thing. Without history books, or modern versions, or anyone’s opinion about anything. Truth isn’t in accounts but in account books.”

“A neat phrase,” Grant said, complimentary. “Does it mean anything?”

“It means everything. The real history is written in forms not meant as history. In Wardrobe accounts, in Privy Purse expenses, in personal letters, in estate books. If someone, say, insists that Lady Whosit never had a child, and you find in the account book the entry: ‘For the son born to my lady on Michaelmas eve: five yards of blue ribbon, fourpence halfpenny’ it’s a reasonably fair deduction that my lady had a son on Michaelmas eve.”

“Yes. I see. All right, where do we begin?”

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What the researcher is describing here is what academics somewhat tiresomely call primary source research, and it’s the essence of any work in history; but I’d argue that it’s also the responsibility of the historical novelist. It’s a truism that winners write the history books, and if we want to get at the truth—and isn’t that ever novelist’s primary aim?—then we have to do better than just taking the winners’ word for it.

We have to go back to the time we’re researching. Not what later scholars said about it. What the people who lived it said about it.

Unfortunately, too many historical novelists don’t see it that way. Mystery writers, I’ve found, are by and large better researchers. They ascertain whether three cc’s of a liquid will actually do the deed. The American historical novelist will often read about those same three cc’s of liquid somewhere and take it as fact. (I don’t wish to offend, but European historical novelists are far more rigorous in their research and accurate in their writing.)

And so we come to Lethal Alliances.

You have to understand, I fell in love with this story in my teens, not necessarily a time when one demonstrates rigorous academic standards. I’d been introduced to Maurice Druon in school—he was a bona fide historian before he wrote novels—and already appreciated him, so I had a head start on George R. R. Martin in reading Druon’s historical fiction on the world, politics, travails, and brilliance of the French Capetian dynasty.

And what a story! It’s said the Industrial Revolution changed the planet (well, it did, but climate change isn’t our topic here); I’d argue that the early fourteenth century made the earth move in its own way. The Magna Carta, arguably the most important document in human history, was barely a century old. Consider:

  1. The first proposal for a league of nations (at a time when nations weren’t particularly well-formed or well understood).

  2. The first real conflict between secular and religious authorities on the issue of—well, authority—since Rome gained ascendency in the western Catholic Church. (Henry VIII carried on this conflict for his own reasons, later, in England; but Philippe dealt with them first.)

  3. The first king to try and unite a patchwork of fiefdoms and create what we in modern times call a country.

  4. As a result of 2) and 3), the first western visionary to unite the three medieval classes—nobility, clergy, and everyone else—into a cohesive voting bloc.

  5. The beginning of the end of the Crusades, which for decades had invaded and decimated the Middle East and plunged participating nations into penury.

  6. The beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, passed over in American textbooks, but tremendously significant in the forever conflict between France and England.

  7. Okay, this one isn’t significant, but it’s fun—the construction and use of the first indoor tennis court!

So here I was, an adolescent girl living in a medieval city, already knowing this was my topic (I’d announced when I was five years old that I planned to be an archaeologist when I grew up), but then Druon came along and seduced me. To all the above “important” issues, he added passion, drama, love, betrayal, tragedy. Who could resist? And when I was sixteen and writing self-absorbed poetry on the battlements of Angers castle (yeah, I’m so embarrassed, but I really did), this was the story I’d been waiting for. Within a year I had a first draft written.

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Time passed. I aced my baccalauréat with a three-hour oral exam on Machiavelli. I started college. And realized that Druon wasn’t necessarily what my professors were calling a primary source document.

It’s taken me (cough, cough) years to put it together. To take the delight and joy and excitement of the Druon inspiration, combined with a lot of years of looking at, as Tey puts it, “in Wardrobe accounts, in Privy Purse expenses, in personal letters, in estate books.” Because that’s where Real Life lurks. (That’s how I found out about the tennis court, anyway!) And that’s the closest we can get, in the 21st century, to how people lived and worked, what they cared about, how they died.

And that’s what I bring you in Lethal Alliances: literally decades of inspiration and very very hard work to get to the story that, as near as we can make it, actually happened.

Because that’s what matters. Have you thought about the future? (Historians always do.) How will our age be remembered? By the narrative of the group currently in power? Does that work for you?

It doesn’t work for me. My life may not be significant in the Grand Scheme of Things, but I will not have it defined by rampant capitalism, by Trump, by fear and hatred. Yet that’s the record being left behind. Let’s hope that future historians also look to primary source documents to unpeel what really happened in our time… and, hopefully, to write eloquently about it.

Oh, and please do read Lethal Alliances. Even if you’ve never read historical fiction. Especially if you’ve never read historical fiction. I think I’ll convert you!