Five Things: Having Fun with Historical Fiction
When I began writing For My Sins, all I knew was that I had a passion for the subject of Scottish History, and Mary, Queen of Scots in particular. She was a character who came alive for me as I paced the cobbles of Edinburgh 27 years ago, when I first began researching this novel.
It was 1990, and I was 24, a penniless secret writer, living in a bedsit on Buccleugh Street, working part-time at the University. For two years I visited all the historical sites, absorbed the atmosphere, and sat in the old Reading Room (which now no longer exists) of the National Library of Scotland, working my way through dusty old volumes that were hidden in the bowels of the building.
I called the novel For My Sins, even back then, an actual quote from the last letter of Mary Queen of Scots. That hasn’t changed. Life moved on, I wrote other books, and neglected my unfinished manuscript until one day it fell out the cupboard during a spring-clean (which doesn’t happen very often!)
Writing historical fiction is a fine balancing act
You have to consider more than one point of view, and more than one version of what is supposed to have happened. There are many mysteries and intrigues surrounding the character of Mary Stuart, and as a young woman then in my twenties, this was a challenge. With maturity, I’ve been able to go back to the original story and reach some thoughtful and well-considered conclusions (and you’ll have to read the book to find out what they are). Allow yourself to get some distance from your subject and don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.
History is written by the winners…
Historians of old either eulogized Mary, or reviled her.
… and Mary was not a winner. A mythology grew up around Mary as a femme fatale. She has been criticized as a weak and ineffectual leader, but she had many enemies – largely male Protestant ones at a time when religious division was a matter of life and death (not like now, then!). Historians of old either eulogized Mary, or reviled her. I think she has been unfairly treated by history, given a bad press, but I hope I have given voice to the real human-being behind the myths and legends.
Cast your eyes back
A common mistake writers make is looking at history through modern eyes, forgetting what held true for that period. Once I understood this it became easier to tap into Mary’s struggles. The idea of rape, for example, did not exist as a concept in sixteenth century Scotland.
History is like a detective story
I sifted my way through the evidence to reach my own conclusion
Mary’s life was dogged by conspiracy. She was accused of murdering her second husband, Darnley, in order to marry her third, Bothwell, and the facts surrounding that unsolved crime remain a mystery to this day. I sifted my way through the evidence to reach my own conclusion (again, you’ll have to read the book to find out). No matter what historical period you’re writing about, you’re sure to face many mysteries – enjoy the process of unravelling them as you write your own version of the past..
Choose an exciting subject or time period
Mary’s short reign in Scotland was a lively and colourful one. She escaped from captivity on numerous occasions, once even feigning a miscarriage after the Palace was invaded by her enemies. In my version, Mary is sitting in an English prison cell at the end of her life, awaiting execution, stitching her braid, while being haunted by the ghosts of her past, including the infamous John Knox. She tells her own story, and reveals the truth behind some of the lies and subterfuge. Give yourself something substantial to work with!
Find more inspiration and advice in our Five Things series.