Historical fiction - using real people in your stories

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Author Frances Quinn describes how a real person inspired her new historical novel The Smallest Man

I found the inspiration for The Smallest Man by accident: researching an idea for a murder mystery set in the time of the Great Plague, I wanted to include a character with a disability, to bring a different perspective to the story’s events. Idly Googling 17th century attitudes to disability, I found Jeffrey Hudson, ‘court dwarf’ to Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles 1. He had an extraordinary life – presented to the Queen in a pie, by her side during in the Civil War, fighting a duel, getting kidnapped by pirates -  and in every story about him, there shone through this character who’d been dealt a difficult hand in life but been determined to make something of himself. It seemed a gift to a novelist, and the murder mystery bit the dust.

I soon discovered that making fiction out of fact isn’t straightforward. A novel needs a shape: real life meanders about and has no respect for the need to tie up all the ends by the final chapter. If the person’s life is notable for one particular episode, you can zoom in on that, but the dramas in Jeffrey’s life were spaced out across many years, and what was I going to do about the rest of it?

Procrastinating wildly, I re-read a favourite novel featuring a character with dwarfism, Armistead Maupin’s Maybe the Moon. I’d forgotten that Maupin’s character, Cadence Roth, was inspired by the actress who played ET: Cadence isn’t her, but she’s an actress with dwarfism whose big role was in costume in a children’s movie. That’s when I realised I didn’t have to write about Jeffrey himself: I could create a fictional counterpart, who I called Nat Davy, and use Jeffrey’s intriguing situation, but turn it into a proper story.

That made life easier, but not easy. The story takes place against the background of the English Civil War and the lead-up to it, a complicated saga involving multiple religious and political factions, even before the battles start. And because Nat was part of the court, I had to weave well-documented events into the story and at the same time, make it clear for readers why what was happening was happening, which is something historians still don’t agree on over 300 years later. After a lot of head-scratching, I decided that if I wrote in first person, I only had to give Nat’s perspective. He never got to read the history books, so he could only tell it as he saw it, and I could limit the events to the ones he’d tell you about if you bumped into him years later at the local inn and he started regaling you with his life story. Best of all, I didn’t have to write about battles, because Nat wasn’t in any.

Not everyone will agree with the approach I’ve taken: some historical fiction fans think it’s wrong to do any more than dramatise the facts. But what’s nice is that a lot of readers tell me that after they finished the book, they looked up the history. I’ve got good reason to be grateful to Jeffrey Hudson, so I’m pleased they’re reading his real story too.

 

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn (Simon & Schuster UK) is out in hardback now.

 

Interested in writing historical fiction? Read how Mary Gibson was inspired by her childhood home to write her bestselling novels.