Historical Fiction is a unique genre which places additional demands on a serious novelist. In addition to getting the characters, plot and writing right – as a writer must do regardless of genre – an historical novelist must also ensure that the historical setting of the novel is portrayed accurately and the behavior of characters is consistent with the period in which they are supposed to live. A good work of historical fiction is not only a good read that provokes emotions and stimulates thought, it also educates the reader painlessly about the past. A good historical novel can achieve more than a good history book because it can do more than describe and explain what happened at a particular period; it can make the past comprehensible on a human level.
In order to achieve this goal, however, a historical novelist must do a great deal more than just get “the facts” right. Facts such as the dates on which key historical events occurred, the names and titles of significant historical figures, and the political geography of the venue of the novel are at best the historical framework. Alone they do almost nothing to make a historical novel work.
Likewise, costumes alone do not make convincing characters in a historical novel. Costumes without appropriate character behavior and attitude is rather like putting an evening gown on a six-year-old or a police uniform on a football hooligan. You can dress people up any which way, but if they don’t act, talk and (in a novel) think like the person they are dressed up to portray, they will not convince anyone. This is why a good historical novelist will spend at least as much time researching social and intellectual history as learning about contemporary events and technology.
It always surprises me when I read works of historical fiction where the exact shape and operation of a telephone or the mechanisms for cutting and fitting stone in a pre-industrial age are described in eye-crossing detail but the characters swagger around talking and acting like 21st century Americans. In too many books, the exact cut of a dress down to the kind of seams and buttons are meticulously correct, but the woman inside might as well be chewing gum and wearing jeans for all her behavior fits the costume into which she has been squished.
Good historical fiction requires understanding and describing not just a different external environment, but a different internal environment as well. A good historical novel will have characters, who behave in ways consistent with the society in which they are supposed to have lived, and who share the fundamental values and mores of those societies – even or especially when their rebellion against these is the essential point of the novel.
The art of good historical fiction, however, does not end there. Getting it all “right” is not enough, if the reader is not also pulled into the period and engaged by the characters sufficiently to empathize with their fate. What this means in practice, is that the novelist must be careful not to alienate the reader by the use of antiquated or incomprehensible language, or spend so much time describing the historical context that the reader loses interest in the plot.
To maintain the pace, tension and emotional involvement, a novelist may be justified in modest modifications of the historical record. It is perfectly legitimate, for example, to condense events into a shorter space of time, or contrive means by which fictional characters can interact with historical ones. The art is to make only changes that do not violate the overall course of history or shatter the sense of authenticity. Authenticity – not absolute accuracy – is the measure by which an historical novel can best be judged.
In the New Year (2011), I will use this blog to look a series of specific factors that require careful handling when writing historical fiction. Using examples from my own novels I will look at: 1) architecture, 2) dress and grooming, 3) sex and sexual relations, 4) social structures/class, 4) technology, 5) distance, time and transportation, and possible one or two more factors – not necessarily in that order. As always, I welcome your comments and feed-back.