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Unknown History: Bridging the Gaps with Imagination

Simon Turney

Writing in a real historical setting is problematic at best, and some settings are more troublesome than others. Even the most documented historical era contains the unknown to some extent. Some are veritable caverns of uncertainty, with only a few clear facts to light the way. There are three reasons why a writer might come across a gap in the defined knowledge of their period.

Firstly, and most obviously, there is no record. Perhaps you wish to set your book in Anglian era York? Even the best archaeologists can only date the city’s famous Anglian tower to between the fall of Rome and the Norman Conquest. That goes a little way to revealing the vast wealth of what we don’t know on that subject. The people of the time kept few records, and those who did were priests, with their own agenda. 

Secondly, the extant sources conflict. This happens a lot in later Roman history, where a pagan writer and a Christian writer document events in a reign that are clearly contradictory. History is, as they say, written by the victors, so we have to be careful with our credulousness when reading primary sources.

Thirdly, and this one is a permanent niggle, we simply cannot think the way a character in that time did. Thus we are at a disadvantage in attempting to describe their world. No one can solve this issue, but we can be aware of it and work through it.

So how do we deal with these gaps in knowledge?

Well, there are several ways.

With missing records, that is the easiest of the three problems to solve. If there is no record, then nothing you choose to write is definitively ‘wrong’. It can, of course, still be unbelievable, so be careful not to stretch too far. Simply take the situation as you know it, try and work out your characters’ motivations and what was possible and feasible at the time, and construct a bridge of possible events that would lead from there to the conclusion you require. Then, most important of all, walk back and forth across that bridge. Drive a mental steamroller across it to test its structural viability. If you hit it with every question you can think of (and ask a few bright friends to help destruct test your potential timeline of events) and it still stands, you’ve got something you can put in your novel. Be aware that someone will always argue, no matter how realistic you make it, so be prepared to take reasonable criticism stoically. And when they’re done, ask them why they disagree. If they have nothing concrete, your plan stands still. After all, history cannot prove you ‘wrong’. Just foolish…

With conflicting records, it is very important to try and get inside the head of the writers (difficult, given point three, admittedly). Some writers have such a clear agenda (witness the Christian apologists’ treatment of the emperor Maxentius, simply because he lost to Constantine.) Such bias is fairly easy to tear apart and discern the truth, or at least a hint of it. With other writers, you might need to look at to whom they were writing, what the power/religious situation was at the time, and whether they held any long-term grudge in order to try and work out why they disagree. Try and picture in your mind what they might have been thinking as they wrote. Often, you will be able to work out which conflicting account is mistaken or biased. If not, repeat as point one. If there is no clear understanding of the conflict, once again, you cannot be definitively ‘wrong’. Again, someone will disagree. Stoicism is your watchword.

Part three is where imagination is your friend. The closer you can get to living your character’s life, the better you will be at describing it. I have found a great tool in this respect to be re-enactment and living history. It has taught me more about the Roman military mindset than any amount of reading ever could. Those of you who were the anoraky Role Players in your youth (yes, me too) have an advantage here. You were sidling into fictional mindsets before you ever thought of your novel. That makes your imagination a little more flexible and fertile. Some people will sneer at film and TV as a source. And yes, most shows and movies are full of inaccuracies. But their value lies in the feel of the setting. If a movie is done well, despite the inaccuracies (you can always bridge them yourself later!) the feel of the era will be immersive. If you’re writing Imperial Rome, watch Rome, and watch Gladiator. They will go some way to putting your imagination in the right mould for work.

In short, the whole of writing history is a jigsaw puzzle with numerous missing pieces. Your job as a writer of historical fiction is to cut out some new pieces that fit and colour them in so that the viewer cannot tell you’ve mended it.

Immerse yourself in your imagination. If you believe it, your reader probably will, too.

Simon Turney lives with his family and two peculiar dogs in rural North Yorkshire, where he grew up, surrounded by friends and family. Since leaving University, Simon tried a great number of careers, including car sales, insurance, software engineering, computer network management, civil service and even painting and decorating sales. He excelled at not being able to settle on anything. Having written a number of unpublished short stories, Simon decided back in 2003 to try and write a full length novel. That was the start of Marius' Mules. Being a lover of Roman history, he decided to combine my love of writing and my love of classical history. Marius' Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum, an attempt to create a new fantasy story still with a heavy flavour of Rome. Since then the success and popularity of both has spawned sequels to each work and more, with the fantasy trilogy complete, seven volumes so far in the Marius' Mules series, a complete Ottoman Cycle quadrilogy out and the flagship of a new Roman series – Praetorian – recently released. Find out more on Simon's  website and find him on Twitter and Facebook.

To read Simon's second article for us, on language and idiom in historical fiction, take a look here