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The art and craft of historical fiction

Historians and novelists Philippa Gregory and Stella Tillyard joined Birkbeck to discuss narrative, writing and finding the balance between fact and fiction.

Cover detail: 'Tidelands' by Philippa Gregory

The acclaimed authors and historians Philippa Gregory and Stella Tillyard joined Birkbeck in conversation to discuss the craft of writing historical fiction and to launch Gregory’s new book, Tidelands.

Tillyard, a visiting professor at the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, welcomed the audience and spoke proudly of her association with Birkbeck and especially with its “world-class history department,” before reading a line from the novel which struck her: “It’s a crime to be poor in this country. It’s a sin to be old. It’s never good to be a woman.”

“It reminded me,” she said, “that when we read or write historical fiction, that we are not separated from the wider context of the worlds we are creating, nor from our own imperatives – nor indeed when we read or write history. A historian might claim objectivity, and might use very distancing words like ‘we can see that’, or ‘the evidence shows that’, but there are deep personal imperatives driving what we choose to write about. The present is always infused into the past, and it was hard to read that sentence without thinking of the present day.”

She praised Gregory’s great skill in creating page-turning narratives across her 35 books, noting how Tidelands differs significantly from her previous works. Though set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, the book’s characters are entirely fictional and beyond a ‘glimpse’ of the King, the lives of prominent historical figures are not explored.

This meant Gregory herself was surprised by the story and often found herself wondering what might happen next. “The historical facts are as solid as they can be,” she explained, “but around them, these fictional people live their lives.”

When asked about striking the right balance between fact and fiction in a historical novel, Gregory said that it’s entirely a matter of personal preference, noting that Tillyard’s works of historical fiction, such as Tides of War, have taken a very different approach to her own. “No one gives you a rulebook as a historical novelist about how things need to be done,” she said. “What you do is find your own way of how to deal with these two extraordinarily exciting crafts - historical research and writing, and fiction - and how you put them together is absolutely everybody’s own choice.”

Whether you’re writing history, news, or fiction, she said, the focus must always be on the narrative drive – the art of ‘what’s going to happen next?’ Whether that’s the next page or the next morning, it’s this “which makes the art of storytelling like life – you get engaged in something that’s developing.”

Philippa Gregory’s next project will be a history of women in England, which she is writing as part of her honorary research fellowship in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology.

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