Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writing Historical Biography: Dialogues with Ghosts

In an earlier entry, I described the challenges of writing biographical fiction. This week I want to focus on the more personal complications of the genre. In normal historical fiction, as I have described elsewhere, characters often take on a life of their own, even pulling the novel in unexpected directions. My experience with headstrong characters has been overwhelmingly positive. A good character has a better feel for the direction a book should go than I do. Most of my books have benefited from this fact and evolved differently from the original concept. In one case, a secondary character completely took over the book and the initially conceived story has not been written at all.

But with biographical fiction, such course changes are unacceptable. The true biography of the central character lays down the route that must be followed. The author is free to decide which stations along the way will be described in greatest detail, maybe the author can add an embellishment here and there, but in the end the road-map must be respected. There can be no happy end where there was none in history.

Another challenge of biographical fiction is, of course, the fact that a historical figure does not “belong” to the novelist alone. A historical figure is a public figure, and that means that anyone else can choose to write about this person too. Unlike fictional characters, the novelist of a biographical novel has to “share” their central characters with others – and often compete with or confront existing interpretations. When I, for example, describe the German assassin Claus Count Stauffenberg, my interpretation of Stauffenberg will clash in many minds with the hero of the same name created by Tom Cruise. It makes no difference whether my research is better and my interpretation is more plausible. Tom Cruise’s Stauffenberg is more familiar to my reader than my historical sources and it has already occupied their consciousness. Altering readers’ perceptions of historical figures is far more difficult than creating new characters.

Finally, there is the difficultly of living with the ghosts of dead. A good biographical novelist will spend a great deal of time with the characters of his/her book and this means spending time with the dead. Depending on one’s sensibility, that can be quite unnerving. I have spent many a sleepless night, plagued by images of historical figures dissatisfied with my portrayal of them. They can be angry or simply disappointed, but they are unrelentingly hard task-masters, who demand an even higher standard of writing than their fictional colleagues.

Obviously, on the evidence of some historical novels that liberally apply the names of historical figures to characters with no resemblance to the personage carrying the same name in history, some authors do not take their responsibilities to the dead very seriously. I wonder that they are not haunted by furious ghosts. Perhaps they are and I just don’t know about it – or the ghosts consider them so insubstantial they can’t be bothered.








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