53. GUEST POST: In the Straitjacket (on the discipline of writing historical fiction) by Edoardo Albert

Friday 21 April 2017

I've decided to include a new kind of featured post on my blog - the Guest Post! Kicking off the first ever Guest Post here is author Edoardo Albert, whose books I have reviewed here and here. In this feature, Edoardo writes about his journey becoming a historical fiction writer - I can't wait to share Edoardo's post with you, so lets get to it! Thank you to Edoardo for agreeing to write this feature for my blog. 

I hope you enjoy! Please do leave me comments with any feedback or the types of guest posts you'd like to see here. 

In the Straitjacket (on the discipline of writing historical fiction) by Edoardo Albert 
It really happened. 

That’s the great limitation and the great strength of historical fiction (at least, in the manner I write it). As a writer, I have to accept what happened and work with it, in all its messy reality, rather than trying to mould the historical facts to my narrative. Of course, it’s an open question in the field of historical fiction as to how much rewriting of history is allowed before historical fiction becomes historical fantasy. Let’s take as an example Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels. Along with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books, the Sharpe stories are probably my favourite series of novels but in them, Cornwell reshapes the historical record to put Sharpe at the centre of the action, from being the man to claim the first French Imperial eagle to be lost in the Peninsular War to taking part in the Battle of Trafalgar. I have no problem with putting Sharpe at the centre of all the great events of the time, but I begin to get a little uneasy when a fictional character is given the credit for doing something that a real historical person accomplished. So when writing my own books about 7th-century Britain I made a pact with myself – and with the spirits of those people I was writing about – that I would cleave to the historical record as closely as I possibly could.
I thought that this would make things difficult for me as a writer but the extraordinary thing is, that it did not. By accepting this discipline, I was forced to attempt to enter imaginatively into the sparse record we have for this time. Unlike the Napoleonic era, our sources for this time are meagre: basically Bede, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and some poetic allusions in the poetry and song of the peoples who became the Welsh and the Irish. In terms of what actually happened, Bede provides by far the most detail, but of course his interest was in the ecclesiastical history of the English people, not their political and military history. Still he provides enough evidence to provide the frameworks for my stories of the three successive kings of Northumbria, Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu.
Not long into writing Edwin, the first of the novels, I realised that the real skill in writing these stories would be in creating characters who would credibly make the choices and do the actions that Bede ascribes to them. I slowly realised that what I was doing was writing imaginative history rather than historical fiction. With that realisation, the writing really took off. 

Looking back now, having finished the trilogy, I’m pleased with how closely I did manage to cleave to the historical record. Indeed, to my knowledge I only made two changes, one of them inadvertent. In Oswald, I placed the climactic battle between Oswald and Penda in winter, when Bede dates it to 5 August 642. I must put my hand up and admit that this was pure writer error: I completely forgot that we knew the date for the battle and, in the midst of writing what felt so much like a wintersfall encounter, I put it in winter. My second departure from the historical record was, however, done with full knowledge. In the hugely complicated dynastic politics of the time, Bede records that Oswiu’s son and daughter respectively married the daughter and son of his great rival and enemy, Penda of Mercia. With a narrative already groaning under the weight of marriages and alliances, I decided that this was one marriage more than the story could bear, so I omitted the alliance between Oswiu’s son and Penda’s daughter. But, apart from that, what I wrote was what happened – so far as we know it.
By accepting these limitations – the messy complications of history – I believe the writing and the stories were greatly improved; so much so that I’m not sure how I’ll cope when I have to write a story where I have greater freedom. But I’m going to have to find out soon..

Find out more about Edoardo Albert:
London: A Spiritual History out now.
Oswald: Return of the King out now.
In Search of Alfred the Great: the King, the Grave, the Legend out now.
Edwin: High King of Britain out now.
Northumbria: the Lost Kingdom out now.

Thank you for this guest post Edoardo!


  1. Thank you very much for asking me on to your blog, Poppy. I'm honoured to be the first of what I'm sure will be many guest blogs!

  2. I never would have thought this stuff was out there. Thanks! I look foward to checking out your articles in the future.
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