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.
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!
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:
- Prehistoric axe is Britain’s top treasure (telegraph.co.uk)
- X-rays reveal secrets of Roman coins (guardian.co.uk)
- Excavations reveal the forgotten cultural treasures of Sidon’s past (dailystar.com.lb)