The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there

I went to an extremely good author event yesterday, hosted by the Swansea Historical Association at the city’s Waterfront Museum, on the subject of authenticity in historical crime fiction.

I thought I’d report on a few of the interesting points raised there. At first glance, this might appear to be straying from Mrs P’s declared focus on international crime. However, as the opening line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between tells us, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. If we were plonked down in England during the Elizabethan or even the Victorian era, we’d feel like we’d been transported to another country with a strange language and very different set of political, social and cultural rules. It follows that many of the issues raised when setting crime fiction in a different historical era apply equally to setting crime novels in other countries (and vice versa). And of course some international crime fiction is historical crime fiction too. So perhaps there are some links after all (that’s my argument, in any case, and I’m sticking to it).

The two authors talking about historical crime fiction and the issue of authenticity were Susanna Gregory and Bernard Knight. Both, of course, are very well known, and are perhaps most famous for their mediaeval mysteries – the Matthew Bartholomew series in Gregory’s case, and the Crowner John series in Knight’s (although each has also written novels set in other eras, such as the Restoration and the 1950s).

Mystery in the Minster

Here, in no particular order, are a few of the issues discussed by the authors about the pleasures and pains of writing ‘authentic’ historical crime fiction.

Why choose to write historical crime fiction set in the mediaeval era? Gregory set her first crime novel in 14th-century Cambridge to disguise the fact that she was writing about a political spat taking place at her university at that time – a decision that proved cathartic and led to a second career. Knight came to crime fiction through his army service in Malaya, where he read a series of sub-standard crime novels and decided he could do better. A forensic pathologist by trade, he set his main series of novels in the 12th century as a way of exploring the establishment of the coroner system, but also as a means of escaping the modern forensics of his day job. Both felt that there were advantages to writing on a more distant era (Gregory felt that modern periods were ‘more difficult’ to portray) and that readers were very interested in ordinary people’s lives at the time. Knight had spent a great deal of time poring over mediaeval recipe books in the course of writing the Crowner John series.

Historical authenticity is important. Knight said he had an ‘obsession with getting things right’ even though authors could deploy the excuse that the primary function of a crime novel is to entertain. ‘The story is made up, but the historical matrix in which it is set is as accurate as I can make it’. However, authenticity can ‘make things awkward’ if you suddenly realise that you’ve got a detail wrong in an earlier book.

‘The more you know about any particular period, the more you realise you don’t know’ (SG). Gregory felt that she was engaged in ‘a constant process of learning’ when researching a period, and both authors admitted their fear of making mistakes that are later picked up by readers. In Gregory’s case, someone pointed out that the bronze coin she’d made a clue in one of her plots would only have been in circulation six months after the novel was set. Knight described the moment he realised that the screws securing an item to the wall in his 12th-century setting were only invented in the 14th century.

‘I always walk the territory’ (BK). ‘Me too’ (SG). Both authors stressed the importance of topographical accuracy as a means of adding to the historical authenticity of the text. Examples given were looking at the layout of streets, checking which plants were in bloom during a particular season, and working out how long a trip would take by horse in different weathers. Gregory had once run from one end of Holborn to another in order to time how long this would take a character to do (the publisher obviously also thought this was an important detail as they paid for her travel expenses to find out).

Gadzooks! How strangely thou doth speke! Knight was aware that his use of modern-day English in the Crowner John series was an ‘anacronism right from the very start’, but also that there was ‘no point in making the language authentic because no one would understand’ early-middle English. So this was a limitation he had to accept for very pragmatic reasons, and had an unavoidable impact on the historical authenticity of the text.

Too much of a good thing? Gregory quoted a useful bit of advice she’d been given by another author: ‘The secret isn’t knowing what to put in, but what to leave out’. In her view, writers can overdo the historical aspect of the text – ‘if it doesn’t fit into the plot, leave it out’. Knight also felt that too much detail could render the narrative ‘indigestible’. His strategy was to incorporate historical information into the dialogue between his characters where possible. Another option was for the author to write a historical foreword or postscript.

Is reading historical novels the best way to understand the past? Knight thought historical novels were an ‘easy way to learn about history’, while Gregory saw historical novels as ‘stepping stones’ that could inspire readers to read a serious biography or historical study. But Knight also stressed that crime novels were about entertaining the reader, and that this was perfectly OK – readers who wanted sober histories should read a history book instead.

How do you get into the mediaeval mind? (Question from mediaeval historican in the audience.) Gregory thought this process ‘extremely difficult… I’m not sure that we have’. She also felt the mediaeval world was so alien in terms of its outlook that it would be ‘too offensive’ to present to readers as it really was (rampant sexism, xenophobia and fundamentalist religious views). Knight went a step further, stating that it was ‘impossible to get into the mediaeval mind’, and pointed to the difficulty of communicating the ‘crushing effect of the church’ on 14th-century society. As a writer, he’d also had difficulties dealing with ‘anachronisms in mental attitudes’ (in one draft, he’d depicted Crowner John questioning the hanging a teenager for theft, but was challenged by an editor, who argued that coronors at the time would not have batted an eyelid at such a punishment. She won the day).

The event also provided an insight into two different research and writing methodologies: Knight apparently does his research first and then writes up a manuscript requiring minimal amends, while Gregory writes a first draft in around two weeks, and then goes through a longer process of revisions (a kind of layering process).

Lastly, an anecdote illustrating the power of the publisher: Gregory was told by her commissioning editor that she should produce a new series and that it should be set in Restoration London. When Gregory protested that she didn’t know anything about the era, the publisher retorted ‘go to a library’! The result is her Thomas Chaloner series (looking forward to tucking into Blood on the Strand shortly).

All in all, it was a very convivial and illuminating hour, which renewed my respect for the work of historical crime authors and their impressive commitment to their trade.


6 thoughts on “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there

  1. Fascinating post, thank you – as my daughter struggles with a mediaeval history essay 😉 I’m not a big fan of historical/historical crime fictoin, as not all authors ignore the pitfalls highlighted by the authors at your event. Interesting anecdote at the end about the new series!

    Incidentally, I am sure many authors have pinched that famous quote for titles, but it does remind me of a rather good standalone book by Gianrico Carofiglio, The Past is a Foreign Country, which I enjoyed.

    • Thanks, Maxine. Hope your daughter’s essay writing goes well! I haven’t read any Carofiglio yet – keep meaning to – so thanks for the nudge.

  2. An interesting post even though I’m not au fait with either of the authors. There was a programme recently on Radio 4 saying that writers of historical fiction are finding it easier to get publishing contracts these days, So we’re likely to see more and more of this genre.

  3. Hi – it was an episode of ‘Open Book’ with Mariella Frostrup. First they had Gillian Slovo talking about her book set in the time of Gordon of Khartoum and then with a writer called Ben Kane who has written a book set around the time of Spartacus. The programme can be down loaded as a podcast (dated 15th Jan) and you an listen on-line here:
    The discussion about the popularity of historical fiction starts at 18 minutes in but the whole episode is interesting. No reasons are given why it has become popular now.

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