Two Problems with Writing Historical Fiction

Fiction does not have the same shape as real life.

In real life, if you have a difficulty with your landlord, the conflict rarely builds to a clear and definite resolution; instead, you typically just grumble to the end of the contract and leave. Fiction is very selective with its scenes, in other words: it contains relatively few of them, but a lot happens in each. Whereas, in real life, one has breakfast each and every day–and, if one is lucky, nothing of great importance occurs during that meal.

Similarly, if you visit someone in real life, and you notice a gun mounted on their wall, you generally don't expect that gun to go off before your visit is over.

In fiction, the standard expectation is that it will.

But historical fiction is an odd category because it attempts to include a large amount of real life. Probably, all historical writers follow Sir Walter Scott in aiming to write “more a description of men than manners,” and to describe “those passions common to men in all stages of society, and which have alike agitated the human heart, whether it throbbed under the steel corslet of the fifteenth century, the brocaded coat of the eighteenth, or the blue frock and white dimity waistcoat of the present day.”

Yet it is still true that some of the point and pleasure of reading historical fiction is learning what a “dimity waistcoat” is.

I'm writing a historical novel at the moment (or, at least, it's a novel set in 18th century Scotland), and so I'm feeling very conscious of this aspect of the genre. It seems like there are two problems attached to it: on the one hand, it's important to get the details right. On the other, it's important that the novel still read like fiction. I'm curious what you, the reader of this blog, think is the more pressing of the two.

As per the first problem: it's easy even for highly studious authors to get a fact wrong–see Patrick O'Brian admitting to have been caught out during his Paris Review interview.

INTERVIEWER

Do readers ever find errors?

O’BRIAN

A Cambridge don who interviewed me for the Times diffidently suggested in later conversation that I might be mistaken in having Sir Joseph Blaine attending a performance of Figaro at Covent Garden, for said he, there was no Mozart opera to be heard in London until (I think) 1832.

INTERVIEWER

There’s nothing you can do about this?

O’BRIAN

Wriggle.

Of course, one tries to reduce these risks by doing historical research. But the problem, I'm discovering, is that most historical studies tend to be written in a style that mushes different years (even decades) together, in the interest of creating a coherent picture. The historian works with surprisingly broad brush strokes. But the historical fiction writer, reading that history book, is frustrated: she wants to know exactly what buildings her protagonist will see if he leans out of his Princes Street window on a certain day in 1765 and looks left.

It's also the case that fiction prefers to concentrate a great number of events into a short time period, and real life doesn't always help out in that regard. One finds oneself keen to nudge certain events back a year, and others a year forward, in order to get that compressed fictional sensation.

But the second problem, which perhaps increases in importance as the writer does research and learns more about the actual period, is that the novel can start to feel like a collection of research notes, not fiction.

I've read novels in which certain sections felt like they had been included to justify a research grant: no matter the verve of the narrator's voice or the punch of the dialogue, the scene still feels half-hearted, because it doesn't do that thing that fiction does. The section didn't seem to advance the story or raise the tension; it felt excess to the novel's needs; it felt too much like it really did happen.

The urge to protect that fictional feel, I'm sure, is why so many historical fiction writers invent fictional “pockets” in their otherwise accurate settings. One makes room for oneself–room to craft a story-like story–by creating completely made up characters and locations within the larger, fully researched setting.

This invented street is mine alone, decides the author: although its inhabitants will wear the same dimity waistcoats as the real people of the past who inspired it, they will be far more like the characters who appear in other novels.

But that pocket-making urge, of course, then puts one back in conflict with the first problem, that of accuracy. At what point has the author made up so much that the setting's claim to authenticity starts to dissolve?

Or, perhaps the reverse happens, and during the process of writing, the author's imaginative “pocket” start to dissolve, because the experience of doing more research and study overwhelms it. Two weeks ago, perhaps, I chose to create a comic “inspector of the royal locks” character for a particular scene, but now I realise that there really was an inspector of the royal locks in 1765–he had a name of his own, and a family and an address–and so I feel less comfortable with the dialogue my invented inspector has said.

And then there's the dialogue / dialect itself! That's a whole other area of trouble.

What do you think? Does the historical fiction writer owe more loyalty to the past, or the story?

 

8 thoughts on “Two Problems with Writing Historical Fiction

  1. I think the writer’s loyalty ultimately needs to land with the story. I have no issue with a writer bending history a little to accommodate a story, and enjoy reading the author’s notes that explain where key items were described accurately and where liberties were taken. When I am reading historical fiction, I am there to get a flavour of the time period, not its full representation. Otherwise, I would be reading a history book. 🙂

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    • Hi Sue,

      That’s a good point: an “author’s note” section at the back of the novel can resolve some of this tension, explaining the choices made. Part of the issue, maybe, is the need to accommodate different types of readers: the casual reader and the historically-informed critic. An author’s note can satisfy the latter’s need for accuracy…

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  2. I SO enjoyed this post! Not least because I started writing my own fanciful historical tales at the tender age of…12. Don’t laugh. I would go to the local library and research. At 12. (Total geek! I should have been learning the hustle -haha!!) Can I just say that, as an avid reader of historical fiction, one must always keep in mind the simple fact that it IS fiction. If I want to read pure. unadulterated history, I’ll read it! (I possess Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization and a whole library of ad hoc history books purchased over the years) Fiction is, for me, at least, purely about escapism. Every historical character will have left their own footprint in time. Pockets of unreality are absolutely necessary because you are not writing documentary. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep between the curbs of historical timeline, and go from there… 🙂

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  3. Great post, and excellent questions! I’ve thought about this sort of thing a lot lately, as I took a historical fiction course online this past autumn. The course spent a lot of time on these issues, and the conclusion that many of the visiting authors seemed to come to was that the ethics of historical fiction require that we be true to the known facts of the past, but that within those bounds, we are free to invent. In other words, there are some things that must be made up, such as conversations unrecorded by history, or the lives of people whose actions weren’t recorded, but that if we know something to be historically true (which can be a whole other vexed issue, of course), then we have an ethical obligation as writers not to contradict it or change it merely for the story’s sake. As a writer of fantasy who’s only begun to mull over a couple of ideas for my own historical fictions, I’m still working out what I think. Thanks for the though-provoking post!

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  4. Great post. Like others, my historical fiction created characters from whose vantage point I was able to render the events central to the narrative, which gave me a bit of freedom in the perceptions, as well as a more (I hope) interesting story. One aspect that helped me avoid the problem of compressing decades of history into the narrative was to limit the story to a single week and a small group of relatively obscure (to Americans, at least) people. I kept the focus as “small” as possible. And also like others, I saved many of the lecture-type facts for the afterword.

    And I enjoyed my research of the period (WWI) so much, I’ve got a whole other aspect of it that I’m using as part of the novel I’m working on now.

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  5. I agree with the others. I have read a pile of historical fiction and the appeal is the flavour of the time period less so than the accuracy. It’s a lesson in imagination to put yourself there as a reader. It makes history more real, and if it’s inaccurate, so what, we all know there’s ‘fiction’ behind the word historical whether that fiction is real or acknowledged. Certainly researchers occasionally get it wrong too.

    IMHO Historical fiction always adds an element of mystery to any story. And that’s an added bonus.
    🙂 Thanks for the discussion.
    Cheers,
    T.

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