The one question historical novelists can count on being asked at book events is ‘how much do you make up?’ I’ve even heard it phrased by would-be writers as ‘how much are you allowed to make up?’ The question is even more pertinent for historical crime writers, as we’re usually inventing fictional murders in real historical settings, often in periods when there was little or no formal attempt to solve murder cases at all. My answer is always that, technically, you’re allowed to make up anything you want – you’re a novelist. That’s what fiction is for. On the other hand, if you want your historical fiction to have any credibility, you have to have a certain respect for the surrounding facts, especially if you’re writing about real historical figures. If you put Henry VIII into a story that takes place twenty years after he died, or you have Shakespeare popping up in Italy at a time when everyone knows he was in London, your story loses authority and your readers will lose faith in your knowledge of the period. But as long as the story you tell stays within the realm of possibility – as long as you can convince people it could have happened, my view is that you can imagine as much as you like.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve taken a bit of a liberty with historical fact in my new book, Treachery, the fourth in my Giordano Bruno series of Elizabethan crime novels. Bruno is the kind of historical character who’s ideal fodder for a novelist – we know quite a bit about where and when he travelled and who he met, but not much about his personal life, so there’s plenty of room for a fiction writer to fill in the gaps. In this novel I wanted to develop his relationship with the poet Sir Philip Sidney, who’s been Bruno’s closest friend since the beginning of the series. (They were friends in real life; Bruno dedicated one of the books he wrote in England to Sidney.)
While I was researching, I came across a story about Sidney that caught my eye. In August 1585, Sidney was sent as an envoy to Plymouth, where Sir Francis Drake was equipping a fleet for an audacious mission to capture some of Spain’s key ports in the Caribbean. Sidney had fallen out with Queen Elizabeth as she’d refused to let him go to war in the Netherlands, and to get his own back he was secretly planning to set sail across the Atlantic with Drake’s fleet without telling her. Drake, of course, was having none of it, and snitched on Sidney to the queen behind his back. We know quite a bit about this little escapade because Sidney’s travelling companion, the courtier and poet Fulke Greville, wrote an account of it. I was struck by the dramatic potential of this situation – everyone saying one thing to one another’s face while hiding their real intentions – and immediately I wanted to put Bruno into the midst of it – and then add a murder. So in my version, it is Bruno who travels to Plymouth with Sidney (apologies to Greville).
Once I had the two of them making a road trip together, I started to think about the consequences of a murder on board Drake’s flagship. What it would do to a close-knit crew if one of their number was killed? How could a captain – even one as notoriously steely as Francis Drake – keep order when he suspected one of his men was a murderer, but didn’t know which one? What if the killing was just the beginning of a campaign of revenge for a past wrong?
The rest of the story followed from there. Though the expedition of 1585 was real, there was no murder in Plymouth. Bruno was never there. But sometimes, imagining the ‘what if’s of history can allow you to tell a more interesting story, and in the end that’s what every novelist hopes to achieve.
Treachery by SJ Parris is published by HarperCollins