Historians turning to fiction?

The Times Online reported at the weekend that historians’ book advances are being slashed so viciously, many of them are turning to historical fiction in the hope of a better return for their efforts. Why is it that everyone thinks writing a novel is easy?

These are authors, mind you, who were previously being paid what most of us would consider fat advances – £50,000 to £100,000 – that often didn’t earn out. Which rather suggests that non-fiction publishers don’t have any better idea than fiction publishers as to what will sell.

Anyway, back to my point. The historians obviously see authors like Philippa Gregory and Sarah Dunant selling well and think, I want a piece of that. Yeah, right. As a published non-fiction author myself, I can attest to the fact that fiction is a whole different ball-game. Non-fiction lends itself to an analytical approach to writing; it is pretty easy to outline a work of non-fiction, because you presumably know in advance what areas of the topic you want to cover. And of course in many subjects, such as history, you already have the raw materials assembled before you start writing.

Compare this to fiction, where everything has to be invented by you the writer. OK, so if your novel is set in the real world (contemporary or historical), some of the information is already in existence, but that’s just the backdrop. The driving forces of your book – characters and plot – will come primarily from your imagination. This is a whole different skill set from writing non-fiction, and not everyone has the stamina to stay with a story – and more importantly keep it compelling and consistent – for 100,000 or more words, over countless revisions.

Historians writing about real events and real people admittedly have some advantage here – but there’s still a lot of invention required. There is also a big difference between building facts into a coherent argument, and spinning a yarn. I’m not saying it’s impossible – the trend towards popular historical non-fiction by the likes of Giles Milton has narrowed the gap somewhat – but I have to confess to a certain degree of schadenfreude at the the thought of a resentful historian slaving away over a novel for a year or more, only to be confronted by the same soul-crushing barrage of rejections that fiction writers have long been accustomed to.

Welcome to the twenty-first century, guys!

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