Friday, January 16, 2015
4 Keys to Great Historical Fiction
My good friend Kyla requested an article on a balanced mix of history and fiction in stories, and today I'm happy to address the topic! It's an interesting thing to think about--history implies that a book is faithful to a particular time period, while fiction implies that some of it is simply not true. Does that mean that everything must be accurate down to the stickler details? Or that a little free reign is permissible?
I think both, and here are four points I like to see in good historical fiction. :)
1. The Plotline Cannot Be Divorced From the Time Period.
Number one test of the quality of any historical fiction is to ask if the exact same characters and plot work in a different time period. If a few small details could be changed for the story to take place in the 1950s instead of AD 500, then it's probably not the best historical fiction ever. While themes are universal, the time and setting are just as much characters as the people in a story. You can't put Harry and Jean from In the Reign of Terror in a 1776 setting. The French Revolution is essential to their plot. The M'Keithe family belongs in the Scottish Highlands; they'd never work the same in the Civil War. Rachel Coker's Scarlett and Frank belong in the hippie '60s; they wouldn't work elsewhere. Each era has certain themes and facts that are unique to it alone. Historical fiction worth its salt wraps those facts into the plot so tightly that the whole thing would unravel if those facts were removed.
2. The Character Mindset Matches the Era.
There is nothing more annoying than reading a Victorian-era tale with a woman who has to prove her capabilities, or a medieval story with a girl who wants to follow her dreams to travel the world. I'll give authors a point for unwanted marriages and elopements. Those have existed since before Shakespeare. But if the story is set in medieval times, then the men led in society, both in conversation, church, and work. Some authors choose to update the character mindsets for a modern audience. But the classic books--the books I most love--are ones where the author is faithful to what people would have believed and known at that time. It is possible to engage modern readers in that reality.
As I'm writing my own historical fiction, I'm having my doctors use several medicines that are neither ethical nor safe by today's standards. Since they live in WW1, I can only allow them to know what doctors would have known then. For instance, heroin was often used for different means than it would be used for today. They'd be very bad doctors by 21st century standards; but by 19th century standards they're using the latest and greatest. I'm as yet unpublished, so I don't know if I'll be allowed to keep that through the final draft, but I'm going to try.
3. The Important Details are Accurate.
Douglas Bond seems to have a great handle on his history, and I love the way he incorporates the facts of the battles into his stories. All characterization quibbles aside, I think he's a great historian, and when he writes historical fiction, you know you're going to learn some things. The same goes for Ellis Peter's Cadfael novels; while I'm sure most visitors to Shrewsbury don't die of violence, the conflict of which monarch to side with rings true to English history. Percy Blakeney didn't rescue all those aristocrats for real, but I've learned more about Robespierre and Marat and the sans-culottes than I ever did in social studies.
I like historical fiction that gets births, deaths, marriages and battles in their correct location. You could insert a slight fiction here and there--but if it's a key event in real history, then it's key for the story as well.
4. The Unimportant Details are Fudged for the Magic of the Story.
Some novels are so accurate you can tell the author was paranoid about a reader finding they made up something. ;) I love fiction that reads like fiction, not a memoir/biography. For instance, K.M. Weiland's Behold the Dawn shifted some of the timing of the Crusades by a few weeks. That was one of her earlier works, but she did what was best for her character arc and plot journey, and I loved it. G.A. Henty, too, while keeping the details of the culture and the battles, kept his own fingerprint of British stoicism and had every main character the son of a high lord or king. That's fiction. It's good. While I'm against modernizing historical characters to advance a politically correct belief, I am all for inserting a relatable character that readers can use to live in the time period.
One of the most magical, perfect historical novels I've ever read is Jean Lee Latham's Carry On, Mr. Bowditch. It's written for children, but all ages relate--because it has the themes of hard work and suffering, loss and redemption. Jean distills the essence of fact--Bowditch's siblings and studies and indentureship--into the conversations he has with his masters and friends and fellow sailors. She shows Nat's knowledge through him gathering a group of sailors on deck to teach them about the stars. She takes what she knows, and projects that into what she doesn't know--so that, whether or not it's all true, it is plausible. Well done.
A historical novel doesn't need to be perfect; after all, the author wasn't there, and they're doing the best they can with the facts they have. As long as they have a love and passion for the time and setting as well as the characters and plot, and a judicious mix of fact and fiction, it's sure to make for an enjoyable read.