Historians discover the truth of past events. They never say a thing happened unless they can prove it. They inhabit a world of footnotes and references, every fact crosschecked and verified. Theirs is a world of black and white, where opinion matters little and the evidence speaks for itself.
Writers of historical fiction are little more than plagiarists who steal the stories of the past and take them for their own, twisting and distorting the truth along the way so that facts become blurred with fiction. Theirs is a world of grey and shadow, where interpretation and imagination play as much of a role as research and investigation.
So far, so simple. Historians deal in fact. Historical fiction writers peddle stories.
But what are these facts? The truth is that for every known fact there are a dozen gaps in our knowledge. It may be inconvenient, but there are enormous swathes of the past that are simply covered with shadow. Historians work hard to discern the truth, but they cannot base everything on evidence. Where the details are lost in the murk, they do their best to interpret what they know and what they don’t know. They use logical construct to discern the truth and they do so through their own bias and experience.
Unsurprisingly, historians do not always agree. Those with differences in background, religion, ideology, race and experience will all interpret the past in different ways. This is what makes history so fascinating. It is alive. It is changing. And a lot of it is grey.
That is the key. The past is not all black and white. If it were so, then we would need just one historian per period to discern the truth and then write it down for future generations to enjoy. Simple. Job done. But like many things, it is just not that straightforward. Historians are individuals with their own ideas and complicated prejudices who discern historical events in their own way. They layer known facts with interpretation. They discover as much black and white as they can and then do their best to work through the grey. The result is their own, personal take on what happened.
But layers of grey do not make black. They just make grey.
Let us look at the area that fascinates me the most – war. Wars dominate history. They are the great, cataclysmic events that shape whole generations and, as such, they are often the places where historians congregate.
I have read a hundred accounts of battle. Resources abound for these major events, with dozens of plans, schematics and charts available for every military encounter I have ever researched. They all share one important trait: they were constructed after the battle.
It is only after a battle that some sense of it can be made. When two armies clash there is really nothing but chaos; a bloody, swirling confusion where no one, especially the generals ostensibly in charge, have little more than a vague idea of what is going on. Only when the killing and the maiming is done, can black and white be discerned from grey.
This interpretation of a battle will only ever tell us so much. We will know what the victor thinks happened, and perhaps what the loser thought too. We will know which regiment was ordered where, and maybe what it really did once it had received those orders. This is all fascinating stuff, but once it has been worked out, and a general consensus reached on what happened, the accounts quickly become dusty and dry. Although we have decided pretty much why one side lost and why the other was defeated, we have lost a sense of what happened in the murky, grey world of combat.
This is where I step in. I want to know more than just the strategy and the tactics. I want to know what the battle was really like. What did the soldiers feel as their general ordered them to march straight into the enemy’s guns? What was it like to go bayonet to bayonet with a foreign foe? What did a redcoat feel, as he looked another man in the eye and gouged out his life with seventeen inches of bare steel? I want to look into the grey and see what happened.
I attempt to do so by weaving a story around the events. I want my readers to know what the soldiers went through. I want to make them smell the powder smoke and to feel the thunder of the cannon fire. I attempt to immerse them in my story so they can feel something of what these soldiers endured when they did their country’s bidding.
To do this, I use a made up character, in my case the roguish Jack Lark, and throw him into my choice of historical event. Of course, my Jack did not really exist, but he is my device, my bridge into history. I use him to show my readers what it was like to cross the Alma River and march into the face of the dug-in Russian guns, and what it felt like to ride with the 3rd Bombay Light Cavalry as they destroyed a square of Persian infantry at the Battle of Khoosh-Ab. It is through Jack’s experiences that we can understand the terror felt by the men ordered into the breach at Delhi, and it is through his eyes that we can witness the wholesale slaughter found at the Battle of Solferino.
Jack is fictional, but the events he lives through are not. His experiences are based on the first-hand accounts, and the words, of the men and women who really experienced them. I am not working in a world of black and white; I am firmly in the grey, but I would argue no more so than anyone else. I am interpreting what we know and what we don’t, and using a story to bring it all to life.
I am doing what historians do, just presenting it a different way. I tell a story rather than write an account, and there are dozens of brilliant writers out there doing the same. Together we are giving our all to make sure that the events of the past are not forgotten. Our novels can be as accurate as the best historian’s work, whilst being as exhilarating as watching a blockbuster movie.
We take the black, the white and grey and we fuse it all together. Entertainment and education in one scintillating package.
‘Enthralling’ – The Times
THE LAST LEGIONNAIRE
Paul Fraser Collard
The fifth action-packed Victorian military adventure featuring hero Jack Lark: soldier · leader · imposter
Paul Fraser Collard’s Jack Lark series continues with The Last Legionnaire,
which sees Jack marching into the biggest battle Europe has ever known.
Fans of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow’s Britannia will delight in
the fast pace and vivid storytelling of Jack’s fifth adventure.
Jack Lark has come a long way since his days as a gin palace pot boy.
But can he surrender the thrill of freedom to return home?
London, 1859. After years fighting for Queen and country, Jack walks back into his mother’s East End gin palace a changed man. Haunted by the horrors of battle, and the constant fight for survival, he longs for a life to call his own. But the city – and its people – has altered almost beyond recognition, and Jack cannot see a place for himself there.
A desperate moment leaves him indebted to the Devil – intelligence officer Major John Ballard, who once again leads Jack to the battlefield with a task he can’t refuse. He tried to deny being a soldier once. He won’t make the same mistake again.
Europe is about to go to war. Jack Lark will march with them.
Reunite with Jack as he fights in the war between France and Austria, culminating in the Battle of Solferino, the biggest battle fought in Europe which led to the establishment of the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention.
‘I love a writer who wears his history lightly enough for the story he’s telling
to blaze across the pages like this. Jack Lark is an unforgettable new hero’
‘It felt accurate, it felt real, it felt alive… Every line every paragraph and page of the battles had me hooked, riveted to the page, there were times when I was almost as breathless as the exhausted soldiers’
About the Author
Paul’s love of military history started at an early age. A childhood spent watching films like Waterloo and Zulu whilst reading Sharpe, Flashman and the occasional Commando comic, gave him a desire to know more of the men who fought in the great wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At school, Paul was determined to become an officer in the British Army and he succeeded in winning an Army Scholarship. However, Paul chose to give up his boyhood ambition and instead went into the finance industry. Paul stills works in the City, and lives with his wife and three children in Kent.