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June 2007 Worlds Apart


The Case for Historical Fiction


Over the past couple of years this column has been looking at the elements of culture and society that writers can refer to as they build a picture and concept of the historical world in which their story is set. A story set in the present day needs little or no world building, because readers already possess an understanding of the social and cultural context in which the characters live, but this is not the case when a story is set in a world of decades, or perhaps centuries, ago. Through the careful use of period dialogue and references to dress, manners, customs, beliefs, religions and so on, writers steadily create a picture of the world of times past.


I say steadily because the building process must go on throughout the story. It is not possible to spend a chapter at the beginning of a novel in describing the world of that time and then make no further reference to it. Just as characters must be developed throughout the story, so the world building must go on in the same way. As the story offers opportunity, the writer must add to the picture being created.


So what is it that makes historical fiction so enduring and popular?


The days of yore hold a great fascination for many people. Once you get past the schoolroom history most of us had to grind our way through, you are left with different questions. The dates and contents of treaties, the causes of wars and the political antics of monarchs and cabinet ministers have a certain interest, but for most readers of historical fiction, the interest lies in the lives people led in times past – their joys and woes, their daily life, their death, their loves and their hates, their conflicts and their triumphs. These are the issues fiction writers answer. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace chronicles Russia’s military struggles against Napoleon in detail and with great accuracy, but first and foremost, it tells the story of what those struggles meant to Russian society and to the characters he portrays. The events of history are brought down to personal levels, and Tolstoy shows us the human face of war and of a society in change and turmoil.


In other words, historical fiction shows us the past in a different manner form the way it is described in history textbooks, and it is that form of understanding that readers of fiction are looking for. As a writer of historical fiction you have an opportunity to take readers on a sort of magic carpet ride to times and places that no longer exist and show life as it was lived by individual people.


Now…I have heard some readers say, “When I read I want to relax. I don’t want to learn.” All right, fine. Historical fiction is probably not for those readers. It is for readers who do have an interest in history and do wish to learn at least a little something when they pick up a historical novel. However, the learning that’s done is not typically of an academic nature. Historical writing should be accurate, authentic and realistic, yes, but it does not seek to present information as it is presented in a scholarly work. Historical fiction should entertain and fascinate its readers; it should stir their interest in the world being portrayed. The Brother Cadfael Mysteries by the late Ellis Peters transport readers into the world of a twelfth century Benedictine abbey in England and make that world live again through the experiences of the characters developed. Her re-creation of life at the abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury during the turbulent reign of King Steven is masterful, accurate in every detail and is one of the best examples of historical world building that I know of.


Ellis Peters’ work demonstrates another important point as well. Although she meticulously re-creates the world of a medieval monastery, she does so without weighing readers down with obscure language or drowning them in detail. Indeed, if you read Peters, you may have to resort to a dictionary now and again, but there is no harm in that. Some readers may tell you – as I have been told - that when they come across a word in a novel they don’t know, it makes them feel uneducated, even stupid, but here again, those readers must choose what they enjoy, and if they aren’t big fans of dictionaries, then probably their tastes lie elsewhere.


Writing historical fiction takes a good deal of research and careful preparation, but it’s more than rewarded when a reader tells you “I really felt I was there. I could see what the world was like in those days!”


If you haven’t tried writing a historical tale, I encourage you to give it a shot. It’s exciting, interesting and fascinating – given, of course, a love of history in the first place. In the next few columns in this series, we’re going to look at some general issues of historical fiction: research, the problem of anachronisms, appropriate use of dialogue and detail. I trust you will find it interesting and useful.

Write on,