I’m thrilled to be a part of the writing team who will, this Autumn, be bringing 1066 Turned Upside Down to your e-readers. When we first dreamed up the idea of having a collection of ‘alternative 1066’ short stories I never imagined we would actually make it a reality, or that we would be lucky enough to do so with such a wonderful collection of authors. Huge credit has to go to the wonderful Helen Hollick for her energy and drive but everyone on the 1066 Turned Upside Down team has responded with such enthusiasm and imagination to the brief. But then, why wouldn’t they?
As historical fiction writers we are fascinated with getting to the truth of what happened in the past. That may not be a ‘truth’ in the way that academic historians would recognise it, substantiated by unassailable facts and backed up with sources, but an emotional truth – a narrative that makes sense of the past for us and, hopefully, for our readers. We are always, always aware that we are filling in gaps with fictional interpretation – so why not go one step further and fill in those gaps with pure fiction?
In writing stories for this project I have discovered that invented history, for me, is like driving a Ferrari, or hang-gliding off a cliff, or riding a roller coaster. It is not, perhaps, something I would like to do all the time but it’s wonderful to try every once in a while. I’ve found writing these alternative stories has been a challenge, a fascination and a pure joy – a giddy rush of almost illicit pleasure.
And what is truth anyway? We might be able to establish events but can we ever really pin down motivations? And what of belief – does that constitute truth? A question, perhaps, for more learned and philosophical minds than my own, but as a writer of fiction the nature of truth does fascinate me.
When I was an English literature student I specialised in Arthurian literature, mainly because I was intrigued by its self-generating nature. From the seeds of early one-line mentions in (not necessarily accurate)king lists, grew a whole host of literature, initially quite war-like in focus but increasingly flowering into the elaborate tales of chivalry and romance that were widely loved and mean that the stories of Arthur and his knights and ladies. Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot are one of literature’s greatest love triangles and many people, if challenged, would probably acknowledge a quiet conviction that these are ‘real’ characters from an indeterminate time past.
This credulity is testimony to the power and extent of the stories throughout the ages which have given these ‘people’ such weight in our cultural history. It is even possible to find some who believe that King Arthur, like Christ, will ‘come again’ – rising out of the mists of Avalon, as his sword once rose out of the lake or was plucked from the stone, to save Great Britain. It’s myth, clearly, but such wonderful myth that we want it to be true.
Then look at Game of Thrones – one of the biggest TV successes of the last fifty years, watched and discussed by millions around the globe. I am in awe, admiration and downright jealousy of what George RR Martin has done here in creating a pseudo-historical world bound only by his imagination. His writing is historical fiction without the research and the endless niggles about ‘accuracy’. It cleverly crosses what is actually a very thin boundary between historical and science fiction. Both these genres, at their best, vividly create worlds alien to the reader’s own but sci-fi is usually unashamedly set in the future. Game of Thrones, however, is in a non-existent past and people have embraced and adored that. It is, effectively, alternative history and magnificent for it.
One of the strangest but best compliments I’ve ever had on my own work was from someone who told me that it was ‘like a real-life Game of thrones’. It seems ironic to me that my history was seen to be aping invented history but I think what this reader was picking up on was pace and action – something Game of Thrones has in abundance. For by not shackling himself to dates and people and ‘truth’ George RR Martin has a wonderful freedom to keep the plot twists and turns coming and why would readers not enjoy that?
Even as I write this, though, my little author’s heart is jumping around in irritation at myself because I, like most historical writers, would argue that history contains wonderful stories and action and characters without having to make them up. The ‘shackles’ to the reality of the times, such as we understand it, is one of the tensions that writers and hopefully readers of historical fiction love. There is little more thrilling than standing on a spot where a big event in history happened and absorbing the shadows still lingering there, as if history is still just a little bit alive within the physical world.
As I said at the start of this piece, I don’t think I’d like to drive the Ferrari of alternative history all that often because for me the Jaguar e-type of true history is a wonderful beast. But there is definitely something glorious and hugely entertaining about messing with the past just a little. There are so many more possible outcomes to 1066 that I would still love to explore but I hope that for now 1066 Turned Upside Down will give people enough to whet their appetites and get them talking about all the wonderful ‘what ifs’ of that amazing year in British history.