Surrounded by such great authors as Bernard Cornwell, Philippa Gregory and Conn Iggulden, I was convinced writing Historical Fiction was a valuable, almost noble endeavour. But how did I think I could compete with such greats? I wasn’t sure until I read one particular author who convinced me it was worth a shot.
I’m talking about the most estimable Sir Walter Scott, the great novelist and poet of Scotland. Or at least that’s what everybody told me. I first came across the story of Rob Roy by watching the 1995 film with Liam Neeson. To a Star Wars fan from way back, this was like Qui-Gon fan-fiction set in the Highlands. I loved it. My policy all throughout my childhood was if I saw a film or series I liked and it was based off a book, I’d go and read the book. It was almost always richer, and more fulfilling and added to the experience as a whole. So when I saw a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, you can imagine my excitement.
I started reading the introduction to the book and it was actually quite interesting. It told of the rise and fall of the MacGregor Clan and how they were in their basically outlawed position by the time of his book. There was even a few pages on the outlawing of Rob Roy himself and the “ill treatment” of his wife which Scott claimed he hoped “[was] a popular exaggeration.” In these few pages we had the gist of what became that swashbuckling adventure of the film. I couldn’t wait to read about it in more detail. Queue Frank Osbaldistone and the nefarious Rashleigh.
It turns out a story called Rob Roy, with a hundred and twelve page introduction all about the MacGregors, is actually about a Lowlander quarrelling with his cousin over a woman and who ends up inheriting the family manor. It’s a dreadfully dreary and drawn-out tale, a bit like this sentence, that’s part coming-of-age and part rags-to-riches with an objectified female prize who has no real autonomy beyond the author’s convenience. Rob Roy himself is basically a deus ex machina that Scott pulls out time and time again to save our Lowland fool as he bundles about in the Highlands. The entire story is an outrageous bait and switch, thoroughly boring and not worth a read.
And, see, that gave me hope. So many people consider Scott as a bastion of British literature. He is hailed a great poet and author and certainly has his fans. But if his story can be so terrible then why do people like it? I think it’s because it’s a tale set in the Highlands and we’re so fascinated with the romance of Highland life, and so starved of alternatives, that people get their kick where they can. Thank goodness we have the likes of Diana Gabaldon these days—there’s good stuff out there now so we can finally give Scott the rest he deserves.
I have two key lessons from all this then, and perhaps a minor apology (in the Greek sense, of course). First, when people, myself included, are fascinated with a time period, they’ll read as much fiction as they can that’s set in it. Pick a period people will be interested in and you’re already half-way there. Second, if people will read Historical Fiction that’s poorly written, and you’ve picked apart what makes good Historical Fiction, then you’re even further along. Avoid the mistakes of terrible authors and emulate the strategies of successful ones and you will have your chance. As for the apology: I have chosen to avoid voicing my criticism of authors who are still alive and writing. They’re trying to make a living, same as everyone else. Someone long dead, like Sir Walter Scott, is fair game, however. Not only is his novel worth decrying, but it’s not going to affect him one way or the other for such things to be said. Saying that though, I’m still glad I read it. It showed me I had a chance after all and gave me the courage to try.