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How historical is historical fiction? An Interview with Bernard Cornwell

This past July, I attended and spoke at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds. It was a tremendous honor for me to join fellow authors Justin Hill, James Aitcheson, and Kelly Evans on stage for a round table discussion on the topic of historical fiction and the role it plays in presenting the medieval world outside of academia. Yet as I sat among my peers at the session, I could not help but think that for such a prestigious event, with a room full of academics as our audience, one person remained conspicuously absent. That person was Bernard Cornwell.

Bernard Cornwell is arguably the most well known and widely read author of medieval historical fiction. With series spanning most of the medieval period and beyond, including his series Saxon Tales and Grail Quest, I felt that his insights on the topic we discussed would have been invaluable to us and to our audience. Although he had been invited to Leeds, he was unable to make it due to a previous engagement. However, I personally reached out to him to see if he might be interested in participating in our discussion post-conference to the benefit of my readers and, hopefully, some of the folks we had in the audience during the session. Bernard Cornwell graciously accepted my invitation to be interviewed on the topic.

The topic of the round table was defined as follows: “Fiction offers a degree of creative freedom unavailable to the scholar, yet as both readers and critics, we desire authenticity in these texts – particularly because, for many, such texts are the first point of contact with the medieval world. Thus, historical fiction as a genre raises important questions. How ‘historical’ is it? How does the fiction writer balance creativity against the restraints of historical ‘accuracy’? What is the relationship between research and storytelling? This round table discussion will explore these issues, as well as practical aspects of writing and publication, with published fiction writers whose works can be broadly classed as ‘medieval historical fiction’.”

A very special thanks to Bernard Cornwell for taking the time to answer my questions.

How historical is historical fiction? What does the term historical fiction mean to you?

It’s really a circular answer! If the novel isn’t historical then it isn’t historical fiction! What it means to me is that any historical novel tries to offer the reader a picture of another era, and tries to make that picture as accurate as possible. Writers create worlds, and the world of an historical novelist is the past!  I’m sure we don’t get it right much of the time, but still the background to the story should evoke a long-gone era to the reader…what it looked like, smelt like, was like! So the background world has to be as accurate as possible, regardless of what is happening in the story.

What is the relationship between research and storytelling?

The first rule of writing the book is to leave out all the irrelevant research (about 90%).

I can’t say there’s a huge relationship, though very often the research will suggest a story idea? You certainly can’t write an historical novel without doing vast amounts of research, but the first rule of writing the book is to leave out all the irrelevant research (about 90%).

What is historical ‘accuracy?’ Can authenticity exist in fiction writing?

You tell me! No one will probably ever know what it was truly like to live in a long-gone past, so we all make educated guesses and we hope we get it right! Plainly the more research a novelist does then the greater the chance that his guesses are accurate, and the more detail he amasses of the period then the greater the authenticity! And yes, authenticity certainly exists in fiction, it’s the authentic detail that creates the fictional world. Is it fully authentic? I doubt it, but we try!

How do you balance accuracy, authenticity, and creativity?

By remembering that I’m not an historian. I’m not here to teach Anglo-Saxon history or any other history. I’m a story-teller, so my first responsibility is to tell a story! That story is fiction, even if it’s based on a well-known episode of history. So accuracy and authenticity must take second place to the story. There’s obviously a limit to that; a fiction writer can’t get away with letting the French win the battle of Waterloo…if he or she does than it ceases to be an historical novel and becomes a fantasy novel. But we do all make changes. In Sharpe’s Company I have Richard Sharpe fighting his way through the breaches of Badajoz, and that never happened. But the drama of that night was in the dreadful breaches, not in the second assault (which worked), and if the book was to convey the full horror then Sharpe had to be where the fighting was at its worst. So I changed history to make a better story, but then confessed what I had done in the book’s historical note.

How do you access research materials? Does academia hold a monopoly on the information necessary for historical fiction writing?

I read books! I visit the places! I buy books! I read more! No, academia doesn’t hold a monopoly, but plainly it’s a great place to start! I’m hugely grateful to all the wonderful academics who do the original research which I use, but there are vast areas of life which are not covered by academia…the small details of life. Some of the best material comes from the weirdest places and some come entirely from the imagination!

What is the responsibility of the historical fiction writer?

To entertain! To give the reader a compelling story. Not to be dull. And to create a background which is as convincing as possible and, so far as it is possible, true to what we know about the past!

Thank you Bernard Cornwell for your answers!

Acknowledgements

None of this would have been possible without the hard work of the session organizers, Melissa Venables and Katrina Wilkins of Nottingham University, to whom I offer my sincerest gratitude and thanks. Thank you also to the other participants, Justin Hill, James Aitcheson, and Kelly Evans.

Photos from the Conference IMC 2017

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