History in Your Fiction 1.0 – Historical Fiction

It’s a genre that waxes and wanes in popularity, although dramatizations of kings and queens seems to be very popular at the moment. Historical fiction goes back to the first time someone tried to imagine what it must have been like when . . . In a way, the Illiad is historical fiction, because the Illiad takes a real event and tells the story as people thought it might have happened. Yes, there are what today we would call fantasy elements, but at the time and place of composition? Historical fiction. The 19th Century saw a surge in modern historical fiction, with lots of authors trying to recreate the past for modern readers, “bringing it to life” as it were, although often with the smelly and icky bits tidied away.* That might be why historical fiction is considered more of a literary genre than a popular genre.

If you don’t like doing research, or can’t at least tolerate research, historical fiction and its offshoots are probably not for you. Especially if you want to do something set in a popular time and place—Tudor England, Regency England, the US West, WWI Western Front—you need to do enough digging to get it right. The details will make or break the world-building and setting, and readers of historical fiction generally know enough to spot the howlers. If you are doing secret history/alt-history/historical fantasy**, you can fudge things a little, but you still need to get enough right that readers will accept the “one slice of balognium”, as Orson Scott Card put it. Read historical fiction, then look at popular histories, then at more academic works. (Your local public library is your friend, especially if they have Inter-library Loan.)

A few things are going to be pre-set for you. If you are writing a historical fiction novel set at the end of the Yuan Dynasty – Ming transition, you have some basic fixed characters. Ditto Tudor England, or the court of Emperor Rudolph II. Inserting a new character, or extrapolating how a known person would have acted, where he or she would have been and what would be known/learned/always unknown is going to be a bit of a challenge. Biographies, “Life in Renaissance Europe” type books, those will help. Your goal is to make the people come alive, with all their warts, quirks, charms, and problems. Some characters you just can’t make charming. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, the Southern politician, comes to mind as one who will never be the hero of a mainstream novel. Villain? Easy. How you write the characters has to be true to their actual selves, as best we know or can discern. The less familiar the culture, the harder that might be. Yes, you can make up characters, such as maids, gentlemen of the court, soldiers, and so on. You can’t make a kinder, gentler Qin Shi Huang-di. That’s for next week.

As an aside, getting into the mental world of a different time and place can be very hard. Even something as recent as a Hungarian gentry son in 1912 felt itchy. He had different priorities, his view of people and faith felt jarring to a modern woman, and he tossed around casual insults that would be borderline “hate speech” in some circles today. But that’s how it was, and I tried to stay true to the time and place. Going back farther, and it gets odder still, and more prickly. For example, if you are writing a colonial Spanish man, or a Chinese man in the 1600s, they will probably lay a hand on a woman at least once, either just as a casual correction or to get her out of a hysterical fit or something. Modern readers hit the brakes hard on that kind of thing. You might ease your way around it, have him though odd by the neighbors because all he does is yell at his women, but you do have to keep that world in your mind if you are going to be truly authentic, and show readers how different it was.

Language and dialogue are one of those places that are a bit fraught. Do you try to write your book in Tudor English (aka Shakespeare)? Just how comfortable are you with the formal vs. informal terms and tones of English as spoken then? Me either. Your readers probably won’t enjoy the experience if you are too authentic. A historical novel set in, oh, the upper Rhineland in the 1300s would use Middle High German, when spelling wasn’t quite what it is today, and when Latin was the lingua franca among the educated. Trying to mimic how that would work, in English, might not be worth the effort. Ditto the thieves cant and dialects of Victorian London, or other places. Enough of the language to color the world and give a sense of time and place works very well. Keep in mind, the farther back you go, especially when dealing with different social ranks, the more attention you have to pay to formality of address.

Setting and world building are part of the story, and a lot of people read historical fiction “to see the past come to life.” If done well, it really can do that, putting you in the shoes of a Ming Dynasty administrator, or on the boots of a Roman cavalry soldier, or navigating the complexities of Reformation-Era Burgundy. This is where your work doing research pays off. We are so fortunate that today, old maps of places are a few search-engine terms away in many cases, and first-hand accounts are being uploaded by archives and libraries. Language can still be a barrier. I freely admit, one reason so much of my historical fantasy and alt-history stuff is set in Central Europe is because I can read material in German, and so I’ve got access to monographs and biographies and transcriptions of documents that are not in English yet. I can struggle through some Latin. If you are writing about the US, and you live in the Lower 48, you can go to the place and in some cases, get a sense of things. If you are writing about New Amsterdam . . . Sorry. But the City of New York does have good archives and some historical materials available. You need to build the world of the past with care, and enough detail to make it live. Scents, sounds, tastes, all those little things add up. Readers will check, depending on what you are writing and how. Here’s where research pays dividends. One of the most important little details I found in a memoir was the problem of fine sand in eastern Hungary, now Ukraine. When it got kicked up by artillery rounds, it got into the mechanisms of the rifles and jammed them completely. So not only were the Austro-Hungarian forces under artillery bombardment, all of a sudden their primary weapons turned into clubs after one or two shots. What do you do then? Withdraw so you can clean your rifle? Stay in place unarmed as the Russians charge toward you? That made a small fight in a big war come to life in a depressingly realistic way.

The plot is probably set, if you are doing straight historical fiction. You’re not going to change the fact that the end of the Tang dynasty was abrupt, harsh, and the entire feudal society of China disappeared in about two moths or less. (Seriously. All the hereditary nobility was gone, finis, mort or so far in hiding that they never reappeared in the records.) So your plot will have to look at, oh, a daughter who was tossed to the invaders as a diversion and who becomes an honored wife and mother. How did she survive. What did she miss, if anything? What changed? Or what new can you study in Tudor England? How about a gentry family trying to find a path through all the religions flips and flops, and the economic hardship that put on parish members, in addition to the faith strains. Or a young London boy who ends up working for the Hansa merchants at the Steelyards. What does he see? You don’t have to stick with courts and kings.

Conflict is also part of the canned plot, as it were. On the other hand, what does your character face? What else is going on in the world, besides Henry VIII looking for Wife 3.0? What’s life like in a Saxon village during the Thirty Years War? Sure, Tilley and Gustavus Adolphus and Wallenstein come through and pass by, but what does the ordinary person see? Or back in Sweden, as the queen is trying to run things in her husband’s absence? What’s it like on a Boer farm on the frontier in South Africa? Or on a ranch in Argentina during the Peron years? What are the conflicts, small and large? Duty and family? Love for someone the culture says is beyond reach? Coming to terms with an arranged marriage in order to keep the estancia solvent? Those enrich your world and tell the old story in a new way.

Historical fiction is fun to write and fun to read. There’s a lot out there, some in the guise of romances, some as literature (War and Peace), some as historical fiction. If you like doing some digging, and putting on a sometimes itchy mindset, it might be your genre.

Image – author photo, Vienna, June 2019. An Ottoman cannon round from 1683, found in the house during remodeling.

*You do not want to know what a medieval city smelled like in mid-summer if it had not rained for a while. Bad only begins to describe the stench, which is part of why the night-soil collectors and other sanitation people were so very important. And why tanneries and abbatoirs had to be downstream.

**Coming next week.

11 thoughts on “History in Your Fiction 1.0 – Historical Fiction

  1. Also remember that people wouldn’t be too articulate in defense of their views. Ask people what’s so great about democracy, and be ready for some blank stares.

  2. And it is the little things that will throw you out of a story, hard. I was reading a 20th century Brit mystery and stopped, because the author kept bringing up the monarch butterflies migrating through. While there are monarch butterflies found in Europe, they are rare, and do not range to the UK, at all. The author was American, I’m sure, and never even checked, very obviously.

    1. Oh, yeah — the “false friends” problem of worldbuilding in US vs UK is a real problem for lots of people..

      And in general, that’s where a lot of problems arise — people who don’t know much about flora/fauna and their sources & uses when/if imported.

      Or the bad historical romance writers who don’t know the difference between hay (fodder) and straw (stuffing). May they never be responsible for a horse…

    2. Remember the robins are different. . . .

      And worse, being accurate may not help. Tiffany was a fine medieval name, even if the Puritans managed to drive it out of usage.

  3. I found it interesting that in your recent Historical Fantisy that the Main Characters consider Muslims to be heritica. Oh, I looked up the person you mentioned.

    Oh,, I’m aware that some moderns concised Islam to be a Jewish Heresy.

    1. Some also thought that 1) Muslims worshiped a head (either John the Baptist or a devil-like thing), 2) that they worshiped “Baphomet,” or more rarely 3) that they were polytheists. I’ve only seen that one once, so it could be a translation error from the Latin. It sort of depended on when and where the medieval writer was.

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