Wednesday, December 1, 2010

And the Rest is History...

Historical fiction is a genre that has so much potential—you can take a true story and retell it differently, make up a story and frame it within a certain historical time period, or even change the facts of history to suit your narrative. There are so many possibilities, and yet many writers seem to get stuck in the “history” part and never quite make it over to the world of “fiction.” In other words, some of the manuscripts I read have me wondering if I’m reading an original work of fiction or a history book.

The main mistakes I see with this type of writing are stories with too many historical details inorganically inserted throughout the text, so concerned with sounding authentic that the overall tone is very distant and, frankly, rather boring to anyone who’s not a diehard history fan. My guess is that the problem stems from a desire for authenticity—which I get. When you’re writing about a family in 19th century America, it would probably be best to leave cell phones out of the discussion, and certain aspects of 19th century life would likely need to be explained to readers. However, sometimes authors get a bit carried away with the history and forget the story.

I sometimes read manuscripts of historical fiction that have passages similar to something like this: “Lady Anne took up her hat, which had been purchased from Madame Beauregard’s hat shop in town. This particular hat shop was famed for being the most fashionable hat shop in the whole country, and had been founded in 1858, introducing the French style to England. The first hat shops in England were actually founded many years prior to this, such as Henrietta’s Hat Shop, established in 1832.” (I’m completely making all of this up, but you get the point.) Does a history lesson on hat shops actually further the plot? No, and on top of that, it’s boring; it takes the reader out of the story if every time a character uses something period-appropriate, you take a moment to give a dry, awkward history of said object. Relevant things should be explained, but not at the expense of coherency—remember that you’re writing a story and not a collection of facts. Besides, even history textbooks have to be coherent—you can’t just leap from one fact to another like they do in those bing commercials. History can be a great tool for a writer, but it shouldn’t crowd out the story in a work of historical fiction.

Hope this helps!

—S.E.

4 comments:

Loree H said...

The trick is not to give a history lesson, but to keep the history and to keep your reader from jolting back into 2010 from the 19th century, or whatever past century. You do need to keep them engrossed and feel lost in the time period that you’re writing about. Some authenticity can’t be helped to make it real. As a Civil War re-eenactor, I understand the need for authenticity in a story when regarding a certain period or war. But you can’t lose the tale in the historical details…you build around it. Your character can be in the middle of it without it being a full blown history lecture. You can do this with a gentleness of the subject, following a time line without sticking every historical detail in the reader’s face.

I had written a line in my book (Civil War era) that troubled me - a man is talking about how love hit him, “It is like falling off a cliff in slow-motion.” Well, duh, they didn’t have slow-motion technology back then…as it was pointed out to me. Bam! Back to the present! You have to have the characters putting out the candles, filling the lamps, performing common chores or a brief notice of a brass handrail in a coach while the story continues. You don’t have to explain the hat that, “which had been purchased from Madame Beauregard’s hat shop in town. This particular hat shop was famed for being the most fashionable hat shop in the whole country, and had been founded in 1858, introducing the French style to England. The first hat shops in England were actually founded many years prior to this, such as Henrietta’s Hat Shop, established in 1832.”

You can’t jolt them (the reader) back to the present – You'll lose them. I give you a visual example - In the movie Titanic, a great movie, but there is one scene where I’m right there, lost in the early nineteen hundreds, Rose and Jack area running from the manservant of her fiancĂ©. They get on an elevator and...she gives him the finger. Bam! Back to present day! That would NEVER have happened back then, and immediately brings us back into present time...the effect is lost for a moment or two while you try to get back.

Naomi said...

You're right, Loree. The task is to build around the tale. Also, great point about the usage of 'slow-motion.' Some phrases are so ingrained in our culture and language patterns that it's easy to forget where they originated and, therefore, why they might not work in a historical novel.

Miss Sharp said...

S.E. - Thanks for posting about historical fiction!

I'm curious to know how well historicals are selling right now. What is the market glutted with?

And why, if you care to address this, does it seem that if you search historical fiction (on Amazon, for example) you get so many hits on Christian writers?

Elaine said...

Historical fiction always has a place in the market. While it may have slowed a bit since the excitement of the first few novels of Philippa Gregory, historical fiction remains strong. Sales of historical romances fell off a bit during the initial fascination with all things paranormal, but interestingly, the historical market is rebounding now in romance.