Two years ago when The Executioner’s Daughter was published, I worried about labels. I worried that being part of a genre – historical fiction – would somehow define me and my fledgling book. I worried that even the word ‘historical’ would be a massive turn off, sending children scuttling round the corner to the Wimpy Kid aisle. Because to a lot of young readers historical has a classroom feel to it, in a way that adventure or fantasy or funny doesn’t.
Yet historical fiction can engage and compel as much as any other genre.
There are so many exceptional voices in historical fiction: Sally Gardner, Elizabeth Wein, Emma Carroll and Frances Hardinge, whose startling, sinuous thriller The Lie Tree won the Costa Book of the Year. Or Morris Gleitzman, whose novel Once, about a boy trying to make sense of the cruelty of grown-ups in Nazi-occupied Poland, makes you laugh, then breaks your heart.
It’s so obvious now I think about it, but somehow I hadn’t thought. The historical novels I love are not so much about ‘bringing a period to life’, as reaching through time, finding connections and resonance with our lives today. The history is there, seeping through the skin of the story, but these writers have some other gift for turning an idea into a living, breathing thing.
What is it? What is this gift that makes those books so special?
Hilary Mantel said this:
‘To write historical fiction, you need to have more than an intellectual knowledge, you need to have that emotional punch behind everything you do. So one tries in a way, to recover that childlike sensibility.’
It’s an exciting thought. The childlike sensibility. The ability to be absorbed without over-thinking. To unthink, perhaps. To feel your way.
So now I don’t lose sleep over definitions. I love this genre that I’m part of, with all its diversity and richness and characters that can reach through time. As a writer, when I set sail at the beginning of a story, it’s the emotional truth that I am looking for. I hope I can recover enough of that childlike sensibility to find it.
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