Writing historical fiction can be a daunting affair. And rightly so, since it can be challenging to make sure the accuracy of the history remains intact while keeping the story engaging and immersive to the reader.
Elizabeth Alexander recently published her debut novel, Lies That Blind, a historical fiction set in Penang with its founder, Captain Francis Light, serving as one of the antagonists.
Through our email conversation, the former media practitioner shared why she wrote the book along with some insights and tips to write historical fiction.
Absolutely! I believe there is a talent in each of us that tends to reveal itself in childhood.
Fledgling engineers love taking their toys apart and putting them back together; budding business people find ways to make extra pocket money; tomorrow’s scientists play around with chemistry sets or collect fossils.
I’ve always loved words: reading them, understanding them, and writing them ever since I could pick up a pencil.
One year I received a John Bull printing set for Christmas and created my own little newspaper. By the time I was seven I had bought myself a dictionary with the challenge to learn a new word every day. That’s why I’ve had a very fulfilling range of careers from freelance journalist to non-fiction author, and now novelist.
I’ve never wanted to do anything other than write.
When writing non-fiction I’d confined myself to two categories: self-help, and business. But when I began to flesh out the story of Captain Francis Light and his possession of Penang in 1786, I realised I had to be more specific about my novel, other than just the genre of historical fiction.
Would it be an action or war plot, and focus on a traitorous villain and the threatened battle between Light’s garrison and the Malay sultan’s armada? Or a love story between Light and his common-law wife Martinha Rozells? Should my plot concentrate on the illegitimate Light’s obsessive desire for status? Or emphasise the societal aspects of the time, including the political landscape, which would bring in the machinations of the East India Company, as well as the kerajaan of the Sultan of Queda?
So, as you can imagine, there were a lot of things to consider before I even put pen to paper. On the one hand, Lies That Blind is inspired by true events and set on the island of Penang where I live, so I could draw on my journalistic skills for research.
But when it came to deciding whose story it would be, that took a little longer. In the end, I knew I didn’t want Francis Light to be my protagonist and came up with the fictional character of Jim Lloyd, an ambitious but naïve journalist. Once Jim appeared, everything else fell into place.
I’ve always loved history, although most of the “ancient” kind, as in ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt. But in the case of writing Lies That Blind, historical fiction chose me.
Not long after I came to live in Penang, a publisher friend told me the story of how Captain Francis Light—acting as an agent of the East India Company—took possession of the island in 1786.
My friend went on to share that five years later Light almost lost Penang, risking his life and his reputation, when the island’s legal owner, the Sultan of Queda (now Kedah) amassed an armada to take his island back.
That prompted me to dig into the history books and other literature. One set of records after another indicated that Light had promised the sultan that the EIC would provide him with much-needed military assistance, in exchange for ceding Penang to them.
I also discovered why this was never going to happen. Having been a freelance journalist since the mid-1980s, I knew immediately that I had a strong human-interest story here: one full of conflict, hubris, and the all-too-human ignorance of the consequences of deception.
Great question! I remember having a conversation with one of the writing consultants I engaged to help me transition from non-fiction to fiction. He suggested that I completely change several historical events to better fit the narrative arc. I told him I couldn’t do that; I was too much of a journalist to completely change the course of history (after all, I wasn’t writing an alternate history).
I created a timeline for myself, based on all the research I had done, and stuck as close to that as possible. Since my story wasn’t focused on Francis Light but on my fictional character, Jim Lloyd, it was relatively easy to ensure that there was sufficient drama in his hero’s journey.
Then again, having a Malay armada reputedly made up of 20,000 cut-throat pirates and mercenaries against Light’s garrison of just 400 men—together with the devastation that would have caused Penang and its inhabitants, had that armada landed on the island—was drama enough.
I’d just like to add one thing, though. Graham Greene once wrote that he had no scruples in making small changes in his historical novels, pointing out that his were stories about people and their relationships, with history as the backdrop—not historical treatises. I feel the same about my novel.
I think living in Penang made all the difference. Then again, Francis Light happened to fit a topic that has always fascinated me: deceit.
There is a line I quote in my novel from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince: ‘He who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived’. I’m sure some readers will be dismayed to discover that Light—at least, according to how I interpret the history books—was something of a con man.
He strung the Sultan of Queda along for years, having made all sorts of promises he was not authorised to make, and he maintained that duplicity long after he had been told categorically by his paymasters in Bengal that no military assistance would be forthcoming.
The sultan was never going to be able to rely on the British to defend him against his many enemies, both in Siam and the southern part of the Malay peninsula. Light kept that reality from him and risked prompting a massacre.
I think the most up-to-date experience I’ve had in this regard has been judging the FameLab Malaysia competition for the past three years. The purpose of that contest is to find Malaysia’s best science communicator, and Malaysia is the only country so far to have won the international competition twice, which is a tremendous achievement.
Writing historical fiction, at least for me, is not that different from communicating science: you don’t want to get so bogged down with facts that you lose the interest of your readers or listeners.
Unfortunately, many authors who do a lot of background research for their novels insist on putting every bit of that into their books, whether or not it advances the plot or tells us anything fresh about the characters. I want to open my readers’ eyes to the political and social realities of the time, and hopefully introduce them to some new and interesting details about Malay culture. But not at the expense of a great read. That’s a fine line to navigate.
Being a voracious reader and disliking stories that attempt to show how clever the author has helped me overcome that temptation.
First, don’t be too embarrassed (or arrogant!) to get help. I’ve been a professional writer for over 30 years but did not delude myself that I could write fiction after decades as a non-fiction author. I went on writing retreats and took courses online to learn more about writing fiction, pored over Shawn Coyne’s wonderful website, Story Grid, that offers many great, free resources, and engaged a couple of writing consultants to help me knock my early drafts into shape.
The second piece of advice might sound a little old-fashioned but that’s because I can’t understand the current obsession with knocking out books every few months or so. I spent over three years researching, writing, re-writing, tearing apart, re-writing again, and editing my novel. I can’t tell you how many drafts I began, discarded, and reconfigured. To me, writing a novel is not a race. I prefer to give my books the time and attention they deserve rather than have three or four works in progress, as I hear many young writers often do.
Writing and publishing a book is easy enough these days if you only think of it as stringing sentences together and uploading the first draft to Amazon. But if you want to secure an enduring career, as I have, then I would say: slow down, do the hard work, and heed the words of Ernest Hemingway: The only kind of writing is rewriting.
Cover image supplied by E.S. Alexander.