Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why I Love Writing Big, Sweeping Historical Novels by Colin Falconer

I hated history at school. All I remember of my last year is that the teacher's name was Sheldrake, so his nickname was Bombduck. I had started going to pubs at sixteen and history was first thing on a Monday morning so the class was an excuse to sleep off the weekend. I still made pass grades. All you had to do was memorise the dates and some names and I could do that with a bit of cramming the night before the examination.

So if someone had told me back then that I was going to become an historical novelist I think I would jumped under a train. I couldn't have imagined anything worse. I wanted to play for Manchester United.

The one lesson I loved was English, which is surprising, because we were reading Shakespeare and most sixteen year olds find Shakespeare hard work. Not us. Our English teacher, with the more normal-sounding name of Mr. Briggs, didn't just make us read Hamlet; he described the stage for us (this was long before Sam Wannamaker rebuilt The Globe); he explained about the hawkers moving through the crowd selling pies and nuts while the play was still going on; he gossiped about Marlowe getting murdered; he told us that Shakespeare was bald, had an affair with a woman in Oxford, and built a fancy house in Stratford on the proceeds of his career. In other words, he made Shakespeare sound like a human being. I didn't realize that what Mister Briggs was doing was teaching us history as well as Hamlet.

Still, when I started my career as a novelist I was not moved to write history. I wrote thrillers and then did a couple of crime novels that did reasonably well. But it was when I wrote Harem that my London agent rang me out of the blue and said: you have to do this. I sold around 180,000 copies of that novel in Germany alone.

Harem was the book that taught me how to research; for instance, if you are going to write about eunuchs you better know about castration, and all the different ways it can be done, no matter how excruciating it is. I also had to learn about the Ottoman system of government, which was worse than one of Bombduck's history lessons. But as a novelist it is essential that you know these things and then slip them into the narrative when it's needed in a very unBombducklike manner.

But most of all I never forgot what Mr Briggs taught us; the play's the thing. History is the background; the story is the star. And more than any other genre I believe historical fiction has the canvas to paint big, beautiful story. It always has, from literature long past (War and Peace, The Red Badge of Courage, Ivanhoe) until more recent times (Shogun, Doctor Zhivago.) The movies I love are Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, Gladiator. These are the kinds of stories that I want to write, and there are not enough of them out there for me as a reader

When I came to write SILK ROAD I started with three voices contending with each other in my head. (Yes, and I have made an appointment at the clinic; it's next Wednesday at two o'clock.) I imagined these three very different characters hating and loving each other on the greatest canvas I could find, the legendary Silk Road of the medieval period. This spiderweb of trade routes stretched from the Crusader castles of Palestine, through Persia, over the Hindu Kush , across the dreaded Taklimakan desert and right through Cathay to Khubilai Khan's capital of Shang-tu (the legendary Xanadu).

I loved writing this book; I loved travelling much of the Silk Road, even though at the time it was a complete nightmare. I loved writing a story that brought back to life a world now long past. I loved being able to say, through my characters, a little of what I feel about life and our place in it. Most of all I loved the thought that I might be able to take someone with me on such an epic journey and perhaps make them miss their train stop or get growled at by their husband for leaving the light on all night reading.

So in the end, Mister Sheldrake, I have to admit that I love history. That sixteen year old never knew what he was missing. But still - at least he remembered the dates.

Colin Falconer has been published widely in the UK, US and Europe and his books have been translated into seventeen languages. He is the author of SILK ROAD, published by Corvus Atlantic. For more information click here.

He invites you to join him at http://www.colinfalconer.net/ and his brand new blog http://colin-falconer.blogspot.com/


  1. Our teachers really do have a great influence on us - even if we don't realise it at the time! I had a marvelous English teacher who, like your Mr Briggs, made Shakespeare come alive. I was fortunate to have her for two years and she led me through Pygmalion, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and much, much more. What an introduction to literature!
    Thanks for your timely post that served to remind me why I write historical fiction, at a moment when the going is tough.
    Now I'm going to search out a copy of your Silk Road, it sounds truly fascinating.

  2. Thank you for a very humorous post! my history teacher and my english lit teacher were both wonderful. So grateful to them upto date for what they taught me and most of all what they taught me to appreciate.

  3. Thank you for sharing your wonderful story! As an aspiring historical fiction writer, the one thing I find most tedious is the actual research, but it is just so important for historical fiction.

    I had a fabulous history teacher who really inspired and grew my love for history. I am so glad she came into my academic life!

  4. Fabulous post! Sadly, too many people feel that history is all about forgotten wars and memorizing dates, rather than about people and the way they lived in another time. The goal of an historical novel should be to bring the period as well as the characters to vivid life in the reader's mind by seamlessly weaving the details into the story.

  5. "History is the background; the story is the star"

    Amen, Sir! And we forget that at our peril!

  6. This is such a wonderful post. I've always been a history buff but I have to admit, the way it was taught in school was so boring. If I'd have waited to be introduced to history, I'd probably never have come to love it the way I do. Looking forward to readng your book!

  7. Interestingly, it was the lack of a good history teacher that led me to writing historical fiction. In American History classes, we always missed the whole period between the Reconstruction and the Second World War. My teachers never had time to get to the end of the 19th century during the first semester, and just picked up with the Second World War in the second semester. As an adult I set out to fill that gap in my education and, as I was approaching it because I wanted to and not because I had to, I feel in love with the period and with the little stories tucked within, the kind of stories I'd never hear in a school history class.

  8. Excellent post! I enjoy history more that I'm older. I think that's because I don't have to memorize dates anymore. All I have to do is have an understanding vs. spitting info back out. All kids should have a Mr. Briggs at least once in their lives.

  9. I grew up in a family of history lovers and it was not unusual to converse about such matters at the dinner table or to move my chair back to safety when two family members disagreed on the interpretation of a historical characters actions. It was common to pick up someone else's magazine or book and steal it for being such a fascinating historical read. I was also blessed with one high school and one college teacher who both encouraged history and writing.
    Good post and look forward to reading your book.

  10. Wonderful post! I adored history because of an awesome history teacher in junior high who just brought it to life for me. I love Falconer's book When We Were Gods and I loved it. I'm looking forward to reading more of his books!