Historical fiction authors discuss challenges of merging history with fiction at SIBF 2020

British writer Miranda Malins and Egyptian novelist Mansoura Ez Eldin
discuss their different approaches to writing historical fiction

Sharjah, November 13, 2020

“Writing historical fiction is a permanent balancing act,” saidBritish historical novelist Miranda Malins, author of The Puritan Princess, in a virtual cultural discussion at the 39th Sharjah International Book Fair while discussing her approach to writing about her chosen subject.

Malins, a historian specialising in the history of Oliver Cromwell and the Interregnum, said: “Historical facts gift me with compelling events, but the challenge lies in the way it restricts your narrative options as you have to stay as close as possible to what really happened. The Puritan Princess, which is the story of Cromwell’s youngest daughter, is very much a work of fiction in that it is shaped by my imagination but I have taken the framework of real events to fill the gaps, dramatise the relationships and move the plot forward.”

Egyptian novelist and short story writer Mansoura Ez Eldin who joined the British academic on the ‘Sharjah Reads’ virtual platform at the session titled, ‘The Imaginary World of a Novelist’, offered insights into her writing approach from a historical, imaginative and cultural perspective.

Ez Eldin, shortlisted for the 2020 Zayed Award for Literature, said: “I am not interested in relating history at it is; I like to blur lines between fact and fiction. My stories begin with an idea. To build on it, I reference a certain period of history through the characters that I imagine. My recent novel, Emerald Mountain is looked upon as a historical novel, but it is intertwined with the Thousand and One Nights.”

Creating characters from the depths of her imagination is what gives her the freedom as a writer, said the Egyptian author of Ma’wa Al Gheyab (Shelter of Absence). “It gives me more room to manoeuvre but when you write of a real figure, you have to be loyal to historical facts and this can restrict your freedom as a writer. When I was approached recently by some critics and literary figures to confirm information on certain characters in my books, I took it as a compliment as it was the convincing nature of my story that made them doubt their own knowledge.”

Malins, whose academic research into an overlooked period of British history of the mid-17th century had laid the foundation for her debut as a novelist, said: “I am always interested in the anomalies in history. Oliver Cromwell is Britain’s only non-royal head of state, a common man who rose to become king.”

The leap to writing fiction came about because of her interest in writing about the women in his family, said Malins. “Cromwell’s family was overwhelmingly female – he was an only son with seven sisters, and he had a wife and four daughters, but they appear only as footnotes or in the margins of history.Fiction gave me the tools to liberate these women from the footnotes and explore their extraordinary experience from their perspectives while delving deeper into questions of identity, culture, and background.”

She added: “I don’t think the characters in this book could exist the same way in a different period and time; they are so moulded by the times they live in.”