The Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival in Edinburgh – Review by Paul F Cockburn

Lucy Ribchester speaking with Lee Randall
Lucy Ribchester speaking with Lee Randall

The third Summerhall Historical Fiction Festival began with a simple question: why history? Amiable old trooper Allan Massie – author of rather a lot of good historical fiction – launched this year’s three day festival hosted by Edinburgh’s Summerhall arts centre, with an appreciation of the historical novel’s hybrid nature. Not only is it both fiction and history, he said, it’s also – paraphrasing Robert Louis Stevenson – both “dramatic” (focusing on people’s conduct) and “romantic” (concentrating on the circumstances which affect them).

Some critics see this as an inherent weakness, but for Massie (relaxed, as if delivering a fireside talk – though the venue was sadly lacking the warmth of a real fire) the greatest historical novels simply remind us how events in the past were once the unknowable future, and that the people involved were living beings “of flesh and blood” with desires, beliefs and dreams just as real and valid as our own.

Massie pointed out that writers of historical fiction enjoy one comfort denied most other authors; they don’t have to worry about “what happens next”. Yes, they still have to work hard to create on the printed page the semblance of living, breathing people within what feels an authentic world. They still have to fill in the details, to actually get people from point A to point B. But knowing what the plot has to be can be a relief.

However, Massie also insisted that writers of historical fiction – unlike historians – must necessarily conceal that knowledge as much as possible, if only to help persuade their readers that the characters they’re reading about are just like ourselves, uncertain of what tomorrow will bring and how events will turn out. Almost immediately, however, Robert Fabbri – currently seven published novels into his life of the largely overlooked Roman emperor Vespasian – pointed out that his central character was allegedly aware of certain omens made at his birth. While a cynical historian might suggest that many “omens” were later ad-hoc biographical additions made for propaganda purposes, Fabbri insisted that he had to take into account how his character’s belief in his assured destiny would genuinely influence many of the decisions he would make throughout his lifetime.

Both authors agreed, however, that it was important for historical fiction writers to stick, as much as possible, with the known facts – unless they were quite deliberately writing “counter-factual” narratives. “If a fact doesn’t fit the plot, it’s the wrong plot,” Fabbri insisted. Yet he also conceded that, if he was sure from all his research that there was nothing to suggest something didn’t occur, then all bets were off. For example, with no evidence to the contrary, he just couldn’t resist putting his soldier hero in Roman Britain during the Boudicean Revolt.

Research is important for any writer, but especially that of historical fiction. Douglas Jackson, author of the Hero of Rome novels, explained on Sunday how each new book had been inspired by some fact or idea he’d unearthed while researching its predecessor. But how much research should a writer do? Speaking on Friday, Catherine Czerkawska, currently writing a novel about Joan Armour (the wife of Robert Burns), insisted that an author must eventually stop researching in order to write the fiction, after which they then realise what research they still need to do!

Lucy Ribchester, whose debut novel The Hourglass Factory linked the suffragette movement with the world of circus and music hall, went even further on Sunday afternoon: she said that an author almost had to forget all the research they’d just done in order to “create something else”. That said, she accepted it was “gutting” not be able to get all the facts and information she’d unearthed into her novel – some writing could just be “too history heavy” for its own good, while other ideas would, if lucky, turn up in some of her short stories.

In any case, “there are more important things about historical fiction than getting every single fact and detail right,” Ribchester insisted. Iain Gale, who has written fiction, history and “faction” books about the Battle of Waterloo, would certainly agree: on Saturday he pointed out that factual inaccuracies don’t automatically spoil the effectiveness of a book or film. Yet he does remain concerned when certain deliberate falsehoods – which first appeared in somewhat biased historical fiction – essentially become the most publicly recognised history through their unconsidered repetition.

200 years on, according to Gale, Waterloo remains the most written about battle in history, proof that there are plenty of approaches to any historical subject, whether it’s the Roman Empire or the world of the Tudors. Yet for author and stand-up Robert Newman (whose latest novel, The Trade Secret, is described as “a rollicking Elizabethan yarn”), the main attraction of writing historical fiction remains the opportunities it offers to undermine common assumptions that we all might have about not just the past but also the present day. Yes, the past may be like a foreign country (to paraphrase L. P. Hartley) where people do things differently; it can show us that other lives, and ways of living, were – are – possible.

This might also help explain what the journalist and writer Kaite Welsh described, in a panel with authors Ronald Frame and Laura Macdougall on Saturday morning, as “the recent rise of queer history fiction in the mainstream”; that is, an increased focus by writers of historical fiction on characters who are not white, heterosexual and male. In part, this is simply down to changing social attitudes during the last 50-odd years; authors of all stripes, but especially those who identify either as queer or LGBT, simply feel more confident writing about such aspects of people’s lives, and also have publishers (albeit, not necessarily the biggest publishers in the world) who are willing to get such work out there.

Altogether, this festival proved to be a hive of ideas and experience. It’s just a shame that, for reasons as yet not clear, it failed to attract large crowds.

Paul F Cockburn
Paul is Freelance magazine journalist specialising in arts & culture, equality issues, and popular science. Recent clients include The Herald, BBC Sky at Night, and The Scots Magazine.

First Review of Alt Hist Issue 7 at Edi’s Book Lighthouse

Alt Hist Issue 7 eBook CoverThe first review of Alt Hist Issue 7 is now in – you can read it over at Edi’s Book Lighthouse.

Here’s a summary of the review:

It is a good mix of different stories and again a great opportunity to discover not only so well known but promising alternate history authors. It is also good opportunity for fans of Priya Sharma and  Jonathan Doering to read more from these authors.

If you haven’t yet, don’t forget to get yourself a copy of Alt Hist Issue 7 soon!

Review of Alt Hist Issue 5 at SF Crowsnest

Alt Hist Issue 5 coverAlt Hist Issue 5 has received another very good review – this time at SF Crowsnest from Kelly Jensen. Here are some of the highlights:

‘A.D. 1929’ by Douglas W. Texter … I really liked the ‘what if’ aspect of this story. I also thought Douglas Texter showed a great understanding of both Capone and Marinetti. It’s definitely a tale that stirs the imagination.

‘The Bridge’ by Micah Hyatt … This story is a unique take on alternate history. It could have been any bridge, but the author imbued his tale with the history of New York City, nonetheless. The supernatural element is different and unexpected. I liked it a lot.

‘After Mary’ by Priya Sharma … I enjoyed the gothic feel.

‘Rotten Parchment Bonds’ by Jonathan Doering … Doering writes well and I enjoyed his exploration of the divided loyalties of the men who reside within the skin of a soldier. I’m looking forward to further stories in this series.

Click here to read the full review. And if you haven’t got Alt Hist Issue 5 you can check out buying options by clicking here!

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Alt Hist Issue 5 Reviewed at Fantasy Book Review – 8 out of 10!

Alt Hist Issue 5 cover“8 out of 10 cats prefer Alt Hist” – well maybe not quite, but Alt Hist did recently get a very nice review over at Fantasy Book Review. So if you haven’t read Alt Hist Issue 5 yet, please go and take a look at their review and you’ll see what you’ve been missing :)

As ever Alt Hist is a solid, well-written collection of short stories that will appeal to readers who enjoy works of alternate history, historical fiction and historical fantasy. From the American Civil to the Second World War this anthology takes us for a trip through the major events that have shaped human history.

Well worth checking out the other reviews at Fantasy Book Review as well – it’s a great site.

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Review of Alt Hist Issue 4 at SFcrowsnest

Apologies for not posting anything here for a while, things have been busy. You should hopefully see more regular postings now though – about once a week. Also I am working on the next issue of Alt Hist. A number of stories have been selected already and I just need a couple more to round things off. That should mean that I will be working through the Alt Hist submissions pile a bit faster over the next couple of weeks.

At the start of October Geoff Willmetts from SFcrowsnest emailed to report that they have now published a review of Alt Hist Issue 4. The reviewer generally liked the issue, although they preferred the alternate history pieces a bit more. However, they liked the varied nature of the stories on offer.

SFcrowsnest has had a makeover, so I recommend that you go and check it out. It looks great and there’s some interesting material there.

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New Review of Alt Hist Issue 4 at Edi’s Book Lighthouse

Edi’s Book Lighthouse has just published a rather good review of Alt Hist Issue 4. Here’s the concluding part of the review:

A well done magazine which delivers exactly what the editor promised:
Well written and entertaining stories set in different period of times and an informative editorial.

If you want to discover alternate history beyond all the well known authors then you should give a Alt Hist try. You will get an entertaining and well written bunch of stories. Even you do not like all stories (who loves all stories and books) like me, you get a lot of impressions and ideas how history could have been.

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Great Review of Alt Hist Issue 3 at Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review has recently post a rather good review of Alt Hist Issue 3. Here’s a quick extract from the review:

All five stories in Alt Hist Issue 3 make for great reading and all will awaken an interest in the times and events upon which they are based. I strongly recommend that you check out the Alt Hist website – – where you can read exceprts and purchase this, and earlier, editions. Alt Hist is a fine magazine that is getting better an better with each publication.

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I now have a Goodreads Author Profile

I’m partly blowing my own trumpet to announce that I have a Goodreads Author Profile, but also to let you know that all issues of Alt Hist are also on Goodreads, so if you use the site don’t forget to add them to your list of books and rate them!

Every bit of your support really helps, especially reviews and rankings on sites like Goodreads, and especially Amazon, so if you have read any of our issues then please post a quick review – it doesn’t matter if you didn’t buy it through Amazon you can still post a review there!

Many thanks.

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Review of Alt Hist Issue 2 at Fantasy Book Review

Alt Hist Issue 2 just received a very good write-up at the website Fantasy Book Review. Alt Hist is described as containing “engaging and well-written short stories with a historical setting that portray actual events or events that could have happened”.

I particularly liked the last paragraph of the review:

In music there is nothing better than finding and liking a band that is as-of-yet pretty much unheard off, only for them to go on and become a world-renowned name. I believe that this is why readers may also enjoy Alt Hist – the authors mentioned above will likely be new to 99% of readers but we may be catching them right at the beginning of their career and find that we can embark on a great journey with them.

You can read the whole review of Alt Hist Issue 2 at Fantasy Book Review.

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Great Review of Alt Hist 2 at SF Crowsnest

Gareth Jones over at SF Crowsnest has given Alt Hist Issue 2 a really great review.

Here’s some of the highlights:

“The second issue of ‘AltHist’ magazine builds on the solid basis of the first issue, bringing a collection of historical fiction and alternate histories from a broad cross-section of history. There are some wonderful stories among them.”

“‘Long Nights In Languedoc’ … was a highly enjoyable start to the magazine. ”

“‘The Apollo Mission’ by David X. Wiggin is pretty short but does a good job of imagining the setting and the feelings of the unfortunate volunteer.”

‘Son of Flanders’: The horrors of life in the trenches are atmospherically portrayed”

‘In Cappadocia’: “short but intriguing”

“‘The Orchid Hunters’ is a superb story by Priya Sharma”

‘Death In Theatre’: “an interesting study in motivation and human nature.”

‘The Scarab Of Thutmose’: “an amusingly quirky tale of intrigue”

“‘The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street’ by NK Pulley is an intriguing Victorian tale set in London”

Remember if you want to order Alt Hist Issue 2 there are lots of options available. Visit the How to Get Your Alt Hist page for details.

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