The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III by Sharon Kay Penman.
As authors of historical fiction, we are faced with a delightful dilemma. That dilemma stems from the very subtle difference in the unwritten contract we make with our readers. In writing fiction that bargain is easy: we promise only to attempt to entertain and engage our audience with the subject, the plot and the characters in our story.
When writing ‘creative non-fiction,’ such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, part of that contract says we will “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth,” while again entertaining and engaging our reader.
But when we write historical fiction, we walk a fine line between telling our readers what actually happened, while taking license to simply make things up. So we are faced with the choices of exactly how much we can make up and how much we should not.
To my mind, one of the finest writers of historic fiction is Sharon Kay Penman, and her finest work for me is The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III. Penman took a true-life character who was represented by Shakespeare as one of the greatest villains in history, and turned him into a brave, loyal and admirable human being who sacrifices all for the finest of motives and principles.
She manages to take relatively newfound research about Richard, and weave a story which totally contradicts what the rest of us have learned in our history classes, and most of all, from one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard the III. When I first read The Sunne in Splendour, I wondered exactly how much of this was, indeed, fact and how much Penman had made up. I later came upon a book in my mother’s library by a well-loved British mystery writer named Josephine Tey, titled The Daughter of Time. In this book, Tey tells the story of Richard III as investigated through the eyes of a modern Scotland Yard detective, who in turn finds Richard not guilty of his alleged crimes, and also a heroic and admirable man. The main character in Tey’s novel, Inspector Grant, uses the best forensic tools of his day – logic and inductive reasoning, (much like Sherlock Holmes) - to make his case. Penman wrote her book in 1982, while Tey’s novel was published in 1951. So forgive me when I say, “there is nothing new under the sunne.”
In these books, as well as the whole genre of Historical Fiction, the author will put words into characters mouths which may never have been spoken; will write scenes that may never have taken place; and will put thoughts into the minds of characters which no one could ever have known. This is the ‘creative’ part of historic fiction, and crosses the line which would otherwise break the contract that the writer has agreed to when writing “Creative Non-Fiction.”
I was given the diaries and letters of my own personal hero and surgical mentor, Dr. Alfred Hurwitz, shortly after his death. Dr. Hurwitz volunteered for active duty in WW II, and then landed on Omaha Beach during the D Day invasion; he followed the front line fighting through France, to the Malmédy Massacre in Belgium, to the Battle of the Bulge, to the liberation of the concentration camps deep in the heart of Germany. I used his diaries and letters, as well documents from his surgical auxiliary group to recreate the story of ordinary men and women who risked their lives every day to bring back the wounded alive from the primitive and dangerous environs of the battlefield. The most touching piece of history was sent to me by Dr. Hurwitz’s wife in a letter he sent just a week after landing on Omaha Beach:
“The soldiers have been wonderful, never a whimper. Always “Yes, Sir,” even with their last breath. It is the amazing courage of these boys that spurs us on. We can’t sell them short. They must always be our prime consideration.
"This has made me a wiser man. It has imbued me with the realization that petty things won’t disturb me in the future, that there is an indescribable beauty in just living.
“Thank you for your prayers. Somebody did take care of me, but I am afraid many more deserving men have been sacrificed in the holocaust.”
From these structural supports I wrote a novel, filled with words that were never spoken, and action that occurred at some time and some place, but not exactly as told in the book. Virtually all the events did take place. But not to one person or one group. This is, in the end, fiction – historic or not.
As an author, it is a wonderful gift to be able to put the story into a readable and gripping (though not necessarily happy) work of writing: The joys of writing historical fiction.
Anthony Goodman is the author of None But the Brave: A Novel of the Surgeons of World War II (2012), and The Shadow of God: A Novel of War and Faith (2002)
The publisher has graciously offered up two copies of None But the Brave for give-away to two lucky Historical Tapestry readers. To enter just leave a comment with your email address. The give-away will end September 21, 2012. This give-away is United States only.