The Farther Shores of Historical Fiction.

La Hougue Bie Photo credit: Man Vyi

Is it possible to write historical fiction where there is no history to base it on? If a writer wishes to set a story in prehistoric times, he or she has to find a way through this dilemma. When I came to write my novel, Undreamed Shores[i] (set between Southern England, Northern France and the Channel Islands in c2400 BC), I was consciously inspired by writers such as William Golding (The Inheritors, Faber & Faber 1955) and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas (Reindeer Moon, William Collins 1987), but still had to find my own way of approaching the task. Where history has nothing to say, one falls back on archaeology – an easy option for me, since I have a PhD in the subject, and have taught it in various universities for many years. Many of the places in Undreamed Shoresare based on real archaeological sites, and many of the objects mentioned can be seen in museums. Even some of the characters are based on skeletons excavated by archaeologists. In all of these cases, I have tried to be as faithful as possible to the evidence as I understand it.

Undreamed Shores

Archaeology, however, only takes us so far, and not nearly as far as a novelist wishes to go. It tells us nothing of the languages spoken in prehistory, of the etiquette of prehistoric peoples or their modes of courtship. It has little enough to say about their clothing, the way they dressed their hair, the sorts of medicines they used, the sort of music they enjoyed. Some of this, of course, I simply made up (it’s what fiction writers do, after all), but I drew inspiration from a variety of disciplines, ranging from social anthropology to linguistics, herbalism, the psychology of myth, the craft of oral story-telling. The story-teller, Sally Pomme Clayton; natural food expert, Robin Harford; and survival guru, Ray Mears probably all deserved credits in a list of acknowledgements that could easily have got out of hand. I drew also on my personal experiences, especially in my youth – sailing, open-water swimming, hiking, bird-watching – the reader will easily spot these!

Ancient hair clasps

A lot of my inspiration came from the countryside, which one might almost consider a character in the book (my characters walk from Chesil Beach to Stonehenge, and I actually did the walk myself, making copious notes along the way about the plants, birds and animals that I encountered) but, as a Londoner, I also took full advantage of the museums that enrich our lives in the capital. The lyre played by one of my characters is based on an Ethiopian lyre in the Horniman; the painted jackets that some characters wear are based on Native American examples in the British Museum; even the map which plays a crucial part in the plot is based on an object in the British Museum – one of the earliest maps made in the Americas.

Novelists draw inspiration from anywhere and everywhere, and this is as true with the remote past as it is with contemporary fiction.


[i] Undreamed Shores is published by Crooked Cat Publications, 2012. (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Undreamed-Shores-ebook/dp/B0084UZ530/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1337840626&sr=8-6)

Related articles, if you’d like some inspiration for your historical fiction:

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Jardine
    Jul 25, 2012 @ 11:20:00

    Having written a historical novel myself, I’ve also tried to go on ‘walkabout’ in the areas I’ve written about. For me, since THE BELTANE CHOICE, is set in what we’d now call the Scottish/ English borders I visited the historic sites at Housesteads and Vindolanda/ Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland. Seeing the landscape around was as important as absorbing any historical details at the small museums. Like you, Mark, the imagination had to then kick in!

    Reply

    • kimmwalker
      Jul 25, 2012 @ 19:44:54

      As a reader of historical fiction, those details help bring the story alive and is one of the joys of reading that genre. Beltane Choice is on my tbr pile, Nancy.

      Reply

  2. Janet Reedman
    Aug 01, 2012 @ 16:24:41

    It’s a difficult one, Mark, not helped by the fact that new and ongoing finds (such as those around Durrington Walls nr Stonehenge and the Ness of Brodgar),especially in recent years, have vastly changed our knowledge of the British neolithic and early bronze age (and will continue to do so.) I remember my first books on Stonehenge –the dates were nearly 1000 years out and a top archaeologist was proposing a Mycenean connection. And then shortly after there was Hawkins’ ‘stone age computer.’ We’ve had beaker people invade, and then it was ‘oh no they didn’t, it was just a cultural package,’ and now the pendulum is swinging back again with the find of the foreign Amesbury Archer and Ydna R1b (most common group in British males even today) in beaker men…
    I think you need to blend both fact with fiction,and it does help to visit sites to get a ‘feel’ for them. As you have mentioned, museums are a great help, and connecting with the ancient landscape itself.I’m lucky enough to live near Stonehenge, and have barrows in the fields around my house…in fact the Amesbury Archer was found just up the road.
    My novel is also set in prehistoric Britain, a little bit later than yours, around 2000 BC, although I have left the date deliberately vague so I could indulge in a little creative anachronism here and there! (I wanted to use the Wessex era Bush barrow type goldwork but also the settlement at Durrington Walls, which actually was ‘out of use’ except as a growing barrow cemetery by 2000 BC.) I am actually calling the book ‘historical fantasy’ due to the remoteness of the period, which has given it a ‘fantasy feel’ although there is no magic or supernatural beings that cannot be explained away by drugs, belief and superstition! I have intertwined the more archaic legends of king Arthur into the story as well, which adds to the fantasy flavour…
    Are you going to write any more novels in the prehistoric genre?

    Reply

  3. kimmwalker
    Aug 02, 2012 @ 10:24:16

    Janet, thank you for your interesting comment. You’ve not told us the title of your book. There might be people who read this blog post who would be interested in reading other books from the period.

    Reply

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