Twilight Times Feature
Writing Historical Fiction
In writing historical fiction, the most important element can be summed up in one word: authenticity.
Obviously, the history in your novel must accord with the known facts of the time, especially when real persons and events play a prominent role. Straying from this base turns the work into fantasy, not an inferior genre, but something quite different. Not letting your readers know at the start which genre they are dealing with can severely impede that "suspension of disbelief" needed to keep them reading.
e.g. A current e-novel deals with Hitler's efforts to do away with President Roosevelt, because the dictator feared his interference with the "final solution" for the Jews. Actually, Franklin Roosevelt did nothing to hinder the Holocaust, although its horrors were well known to the American government. A reader aware of these facts would find this book tough going, no matter how well it was written.
The second area in which authenticity is crucial is details. Get a few important ones badly wrong, and you've lost your readers forever. To help ward off these errors, there is a series of books from Writer's Digest, entitled Daily Life in _________. From these, it is possible to find out when various inventions came on the scene, and how long it took them to become part of people's routine. You can learn how dangerous it actually was to go from one side of London to another in 1686. What kinds of crime and punishment were the order of the day? Where were pirates operating, and what were their tactics and goals? How did someone become a pirate anyway?
Obviously, there is no need to make yourself an expert in the period or to master much more that an few convincing and accurate details within a well researched historical context.
Sometimes, however, you may have to deal with a time for which there are few sources, and even they are doubtful.
For Part One of my own King of the Romans, the sole original sources were a paragraph in Gregory of Tours, the official historian of the Franks, writing a century after the events of my novel had taken place, and some letters from Bishop Sidonius to a man who may have been the hero of my novel. For the second half, I relied upon contemporary historians to give me an idea of the laws, customs and usages of the time. Individual characters and events, however, were my own invention.
Many cultures have left us no written records, and what we know of them comes mostly from ancient ruins and burial sites. Here, you try to learn enough from archaeology to avoid obvious "howlers," like having a Mayan princess ride off in a carriage or letting a tribe of Neanderthals be chased by dinosaurs.
Emotional authenticity is by far the the most difficult, as we try to project ourselves backward into the minds and hearts of our characters. Historical accounts tell us how people acted, but they rarely give us much insight into how they felt. For that information, it is best to turn to the fiction of the time. e.g. Virgil's Aeneid is hardly reliable as a historical account of the founding of Rome, but it is an excellent source for how Romans believed they should feel about these events in the past, and how they should conduct themselves in the present.
Jane Austen's novels are far more the emotional history of her characters than they are of the great events of the time, which are barely mentioned. Anyone writing about that period would be hard pressed to find a better guide to how people in the early 19th Century British upper middle class felt about themselves and each other. For the middle of that century, Charles Dickens is enormously helpful, as are Henry James and Edith Wharton for the turn of the Twentieth, etc. Even bad literature can tell us much about people's emotional lives.
As we come nearer to our own time, magazines and newspapers open a window onto the day-to-day backdrop of people's lives and, by inference at least, their attitude toward those lives. e.g. What magazines were "ladies" supposed to read? What lessons were they expected to learn from them? What stories were regarded as suitable for growing boys? Who were the characters to be imitated or shunned?
No matter how much we study, however, we are always looking backward though our own eyes from our own lives, the only ones we can really know. But this knowledge can protect us from allowing wishful thinking to make our characters think and act in ways that were not just unusual, but literally inconceivable, in their day.
No amount of research, however, is a substitute for good writing, for
interesting, plausible stories of people we care about. Writers owe it
to their readers not to put obstacles in their path, not to trip them up
with historical blunders that shatter the
John Gorman is a freelance journalist based in Miami Florida and a 2000 Eppie finalist with his historical novel, King of the Romans, e-published by Awe-Struck.net
Re-printed by permission of the author.