Historical Fiction is a strange, strange creature. It’s our world and yet, by virtue of the distinct differences in culture, clothing, food, diction, and many MANY other things, it feels simultaneously alien and familiar. We recognize names, but in other ways we feel like we’re looking at Westeros instead of England. Given some of my projects, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and because of a question from a friend (thanks, Leah!) I’ve actually had to force myself to put some of it into words rather than letting it float as vague concepts.
The important thing to remember about Historical Fiction is the FICTION part of it. What we’re doing takes place within a real setting, often working around real timelines and events and people, but it is fictional. We’re telling a story that may or may not have ever happened, and if it did, we’re still projecting our theories (and our story) onto the characters and events. For example, Anne Boleyn was executed. We know this. If we’re writing a story about her thoughts as she mounts the steps to the platform with the headsman waiting for her forgiveness, we’re still speculating. Inventing. It’s the same if we create out of whole cloth a young woman that we claim served as one of her maids, someone watching from the crowd. They’re difficult and challenging in different ways, but in either respect, we’re playing directly within the historical truth. Or, we may be out in a small village, where the news of the queen’s execution is little more than a flash of news from a rider passing through, and the focus is much more narrow. Our focus, as the writer, is still the story.
So, sometimes, for the sake of the story, we look to see how and where and how much we can fudge things.
Part of what makes Historical Fiction so difficult is the necessary balance between accuracy and readability. We want to be correct in what we say- we don’t want to make glaring anachronisms, we don’t want to have a character be present at something thirty years before he was born. (Or in my case, be part of a revel nine months before he arrived in the United States…) It requires a lot of research, and not just into the straight timelines. Clothing is different, food is different, conveyance, speech, societal expectations, even things we don’t tend to think about as much, like impressions or definitions. If you called a man gay in the early 1600s, you were just saying he was happy. Little bit different now. Or, for another example, the part in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy calls 50 miles an easy distance. For someone with a private carriage, who wasn’t dependant on the vagaries of the post coaches, who wasn’t pressed into a small transport with four or five other people, that could certainly be the case, but that easy acceptance of distance as a non-obstacle was a privilege of wealth.
As we’re doing research, we tend to split into two camps. On the one side, there’s the camp that says “I want to do just enough to give the impression and then be done with it”. The stories that result from this tend to sketch the setting more than actively engage it. If they don’t give enough flat out “here is where we are” drops in the text, people may or may not tie the story to a specific time. Then there’s the camp that throws itself into research and damn it, we need to know everything, right down to how to how the iron buckle on the third gentleman’s left shoe is made. The stories that result from this tend to drown in detail. We get so caught up in getting everything right, we completely fail to make it engaging, we don’t notice that it bogs the story down considerably.
Obviously the easy answer is to find the happy medium, but easy answers rarely have easy applications.
It’s a very thin range of true compromise, where you can balance the accuracy with the story. There are some details you have to drop in order to keep the pace going, but there are some details necessary in order to place the story within the setting.
And that’s also where fudging comes in. In case it’s a regionalism, fudging is the act of deliberately blurring the edges of a fact in order to make it fit within the story. It’s an act with a very broad application. It can, for example, fill in what Darcy is doing over Christmas, when the original story follows Elizabeth. It’s very good for filling in gaps, as long as there are only theories and no proof for where they actually were or what was actually happening. Fudging can help you get around anachronisms in order to keep your readers. Recently someone (I think it was Rae Carson, I apologize if not) said there was a specific kind of ship in the book that didn’t match the overall technological level of the setting, but that the number of people in her audience who would know that and be up in arms about it was significantly smaller than the number who would be thrown out of the story by the intricacies necessary to convey what was needed to steer the ship of appropriate technological level. It was a fudge, but not one that most people will notice.
Fudging is a large part of the fiction part of Historical Fiction. When we create characters and put them into extant circumstances, we’re fudging what actually happened. If I put someone on a general’s staff, in a king’s court, in a highly regarded exploration expedition, I’m fudging. What I’m counting on is partly a suspension of disbelief and a general sort of ignorance on specifics, on the part of my readership. Ignorance, not stupidity. The idea is to weave the story so well within the setting that it seems completely plausible, that no one will know- or feel the need to prove- that Anne Boleyn didn’t have a maid named Bessie Cooper.
When Robin LaFevers was writing Grave Mercy, she fudged. Ismae was not a part of the Breton court. BUT- LaFevers fudged so well and so seamlessly that the true details of the court made it all wrap around Ismae, almost absorb her, and thereby lend her some of their truth. Did I go out and do some basic research into the court of Brittany afterwards? Yes, because I’m a history nerd and it got me really excited to know more, and then, because the book was crafted so well, I was blown away even more by how well the threads of history and fiction were spun together.
We want our historically-based characters to be accessible to a modern audience, and that can be incredibly difficult. Societal norms have shifted so much over time that a woman in the 1400s concerned mostly with getting a husband who isn’t TOO much older and doesn’t beat her TOO much seems absurd to many. She should be marrying for love! She shouldn’t settle for anyone who would raise a hand to her! Except…that’s our society talking, not hers. In her society, a woman of rank married whoever her parents or male guardians picked out for her, she married for money, land, a/o social gain, for power, and age, beauty, and personal compatibility had little if anything to do with it. These arrangements weren’t based off of emotions, they were political and business transactions with women as part of the currency. It’s a FACT, and if you’re setting a story within the 1400s, you have to allow for that being the prevailing sentiment. Courtly Love still had a strong grip even after a couple of centuries, but one of the basic tenents of Courty Love was that the woman the perfect knight was supposed to be wildly in love with? WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HIS WIFE. The whole concept was that true love was untouchable, and therefore pure in a way that love within a marriage couldn’t be (I’m not making this up, I swear). Sure, young maidens probably sighed and swooned over handsome young men, who may or may not have been titled, wealthy, or powerful but whatever fuss they might kick up, the options were marriage or convent. And that was it. If you’re writing a story set within this society, you can’t have an entire cast of characters all obsessed with true love and defying their parents at every turn seemingly without consequence. You can make someone rebellious, but you have to acknowledge and work within what they’re rebelling against.
It can be really hard to separate out what we’ve grown up with, what we expect, from what our characters’ realities would have been. Similarly, language itself can be a tricky bastard. Language changes with leaps and bounds, constantly evolving. You can’t have someone walk up to Queen Elizabeth I and say “Yo, dude, sup?” Doesn’t quite work that way. But, what we have of the time period’s modes of speech (usually written and therefore somewhat more formal) can be inaccessible or at the least uninteresting to large portions of a modern audience. There are compromises to be made, delicate negotiations that, if all goes as well as it can, come off on the page without any red flags or raised eyebrows. Something I use a lot when I’m trying to decide what is or is not acceptable is to compare the language in Hamlet or King Lear with the language in Much Ado About Nothing. The formal settings are very different, the concepts being addressed are very different, so where the language in the tragedies often comes off as high and poetic, the comedy is much more give and take, much more conversational. Even in Henry IV, Part I, look at the difference between the nobles and the commoners, how different the language and the apparent levels of education and class are. It gives you the range within a given society (though it is Shakespeare, so you know, expand the lower end of the range quite a bit). If at all possible, read documents from that time period, again and again and enough of them that the language in which they’re written becomes something familiar to you. (Kind of like teaching yourself not to swear in front of your parents when you’re in high school).
And good luck.
What do you look for in historical fiction? Are there things you find complete turn offs, or things you can forgive for story? Share below!
Until next time~