Friday, July 13, 2012

So you want to write a novel about King Arthur? Tony Hays on writing and reading about well-known historical figures

Tony Hays is stopping by today with a provocative essay on the advantages and perils of writing about famous names from history.  He knows whereof he speaks, having constructed a series of novels around one of England's most legendary heroes.   

The Stolen Bride (Forge, April 2012), volume four of his Arthurian Mysteries, tells a self-contained story while adding to his ongoing saga about Malgwyn, counselor to King Arthur in a gritty 5th-century Britain.  Sent to the distant western realm of King Doged to broker a truce, Malgwyn finds himself asked to help solve his elderly host's murder.  Doged's enigmatic young widow, Ysbail, ultimately joins Arthur's longtime consort, Guinevere, as one of the stronger female figures in Arthurian retellings. This excellent series has been getting stronger with each new entry.  Hope you  will enjoy Tony's post!


So you want to write a novel about King Arthur, or Queen Elizabeth I, or Joan of Arc, or Guinevere, or Merlin, or Abraham Lincoln or Richard the Lionhearted, or Genghis Khan? Certainly a noble endeavor. Everyone loves a book about Arthur or the Tudors or the saintly Joan. Publishers may immediately think of such figures’ perennial popularity. But, the first thing you have to remember is that hundreds, if not thousands, of authors have already gone where you are about to tread. And millions of readers have already tested those waters, and they have already formed a mental picture of each of those characters, an image with which yours may or may not jibe. And if your characterization doesn’t coincide with their own, readers will let you know, quickly and loudly. Sailing into such well-traveled waters as Arthurian or Tudor legend is often akin to sailing into a mine-laden Subic Bay during World War II.

Different is good. Different interpretations of historical figures make readers think. As long as the interpretation doesn’t take liberties with the facts. While Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter may have sold millions of copies, nobody I know considers it a historical novel. No, it’s a gimmick intended to tap the sometimes inexplicable interest people have in vampires. My friend C.W. Gortner, in his book The Last Queen about Queen Juana of Castile, took a woman whose nickname was “la Loca” or “The Mad” and presented her in a convincing, accurate, yet sympathetic way. It worked. But C.W. didn’t have a lot of fictional representations already out there to compete with. That takes nothing away from his achievement; it just lets him breathe a little easier.

I always thought that Gore Vidal did a great job with Lincoln because he opted to never pretend to know what the great man was thinking. He let other characters tell the tale, and his Lincoln comes across as shrewd, folksy and, ultimately, enigmatic. Oh, and there’s no hint of vampire hunting in his background. Someday, I’d like to write a YA mystery series set in Lincoln’s White House, where Lincoln uses his two boys and their friends, the Taft children, as sort of Baker Street Irregulars, or perhaps it should be Pennsylvania Avenue Irregulars. And, if I do, I will owe much to Vidal’s characterization, not to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In my own Arthurian mystery series, I take different views of just about every character, and I don’t have any breathing space. Everybody has heard of King Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and the gang. They may have read Thomas Malory or T.H. White or just seen The Sword in the Stone. But nearly everybody has a preconceived notion. Guinevere is portrayed as either a wide-eyed innocent ala The First Knight, or a seasoned adulterer. I chose not to go that way. I wanted a Guinevere who was strong, independent. I needed an Arthur who was strong, idealistic, but not quite as clueless as some portrayals. I have no magic. My Arthur is a man who walks the ground, gets dirty and sometimes smells. And I have no Lancelot. My Arthurian universe nestles next to reality. Lancelot never existed.

I have paid a price for ignoring Malory, Chretien de Troyes, Wace and T.H. White. One reviewer took me to task very profanely for dismissing the later romance writers. But I knew that was a possibility before I started. In general, I’ve found that American readers are less willing to countenance new interpretations of old characters. The British, for whom Arthur is a national hero, are generally far more accepting.

My point is this. If you are a writer, don’t play fast and loose with historical fact to accommodate your interpretation of a historical character; readers of historical fiction are demanding ones, and they will call you out if you make errors. If you are a reader, don’t let preconceived notions of historical figures color how you react to a new characterization. You could learn something new about the person and the period. And we lovers of historical fiction yearn for two things. We want to be entertained, yes. But we also want to be educated as we go.


  1. One of the reasons I prefer historical fiction about ordinary (imaginary) people is that you don't have to fight against your preconceived notions. Or, even worse, the images burned into your brain by popular TV series or movies. I swear that for anyone born before 1960, Henry VIII looks EXACTLY like Keith Michell; for the generation now entering adulthood, he looks like Jonathan Rhys Meyers and stares down bodices a lot. What does a writer do to counteract the effect of the almighty screen?

  2. Michell's and Meyers' versions of the king aren't exactly lookalikes either. My image of him is strongly colored by Margaret George's rendition, which I read when it came out.

  3. But it isn't just misconceptions about people that you have to fight so you may as well write about the people who interest you.

    Medieval Scots did NOT wear kilts. NOT!

    Someone recently looked at the cover of my novel Countenance of War (showing the Battle of Bannockburn) and said they thought that Scots didn't wear armour!

    So if I'm going to have to fight every single misconception that Mel Gibson spread around I might as well go the full monty and write about the people who interest me. :)

    1. I agree - write about what interests you! And if readers learn something new, that's a good thing.

  4. That's interesting - I would have thought it would be the other way around, with the English complaining about the interpretations.
    The closest I've come is having Christopher Columbus appear in the background in one scene. Oh, and Sultan Bayezid II. As long as there's evidence supporting a particular view of a historical character, I don't see why it can't be fleshed out for a novel. An Arthurian tale without magic sounds interesting!

    1. The English seem to be more laid-back than Americans about a lot of things.

      And yes - as long as there's evidence, or if you lay it out in an author's note that something's completely made up. :) I don't think Persia Woolley's or Parke Godwin's interpretations had magic in them either, and it's been a while since I've read Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset, but it may also fit.

  5. I should probably add that the Arthur that I deal with is a historical reconstruction, not the later literary figure. Of course, my narrator, Malgwyn, and several other characters are complete fictional creations. I think the British are more accepting because they've already seen so many variations on Arthur. A new one is of note, but not viewed as an assault on a national hero.