Fudge and the Craft of Historical Fiction

October 28, 2012 at 11:00 am (Writing) (, , , , )

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~

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Book Review: Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

May 23, 2012 at 5:39 pm (Book Reviews) (, , , , )

It starts with a confession, a game she has no chance of winning. It starts with a war and a horror, a history. It starts with a chance, a crashing plane, a mission, and a changing name. But most of all, it starts with a friendship, one with the power to change the course of everything, a friendship that forms its own courage, its own strength, one that will defy the terrors of a Gestapo cell. Because sometimes, friendship is a code name for hope. Trapped in a nightmare, Verity will have to draw on that friendship to survive the unspeakable horrors that await a captured spy.

I’ll go ahead and give the warning: I can’t help but gush about this one. Days and distance are not helping any in that regard, because I think about all the amazing aspects of this book and I’m just blown away all over again. So there is gushing, and maybe a bit of drooling.

The ages of the characters in this book are somewhat nebulous. You get the distinct impression that’s on purpose, probably because it teeters on the edge between Young Adult and Adult. It really could have gone either way, but I’m so glad it went YA, because the voice- oh my God the voice- is so spectacularly compelling. This is a voice that sucks you in from page one and never lets go, and at no point does it become less than riveting. It’s beyond compelling straight into captivating, and even when you’re breathless and appalled and teary-eyeed, you cannot put this book down. Holy expletive, the voice.

It manages to make even the most horrific things matter-of-fact, not in a blase sense but in the sense that she’s tried very hard to prepare herself for anything. Watching the moments where her composure starts to crack, but you know she’s still thinking and planning and gah! awe. Absolute awe. She’s brutally honest and yet, there’s always this sneaking suspicion that she’s tricking us all sometimes. And sometimes, there’s the suspicion that she’s trying to trick herself. The fate of a captured enemy operative is torture and then death- she never flinches from this. She relates that torture in a way that’s sickening, but not grotesque. It doesn’t back away from details but neither does it dwell on them, as much a part of her experience as the fervent wish for clean clothing.

There is so much that’s going on in this book, and yet it has a single, easily identifiable pillar around which it revolves: friendship. Not a romance, but a friendship as deep and true, perhaps even more so, than a romance in such circumstances could possibly be. How these two very different young women come together under a common cause is both gratifying and hysterical as they compare fears, games, and histories. But they do come together, forging both a friendship and a formidable team, and that frienship sustains them through some truly horrifying trials. It’s more than edifying, it’s transformative. Because of this friendship, their lives could never be the same again. I love that even with the subtle threads of possible romances that crop up from time to time, the central focus is always on that incredible friendship.

I love love LOVE how even the villains are humanized with fears and histories and famlies. That human factor is a little bit terrifying- how can they be okay with doing this to other people’s children?- but so true to life and history. Sympathy for the devil is so hard to write, and even harder to sell to a reader, but it comes off so flawlessly it’s hard not to tear up even for the horrible people. Not are the ‘good’ people all valiant knights in shiny white armor. Just because someone is working for the same side doesn’t make them good, and there are distinct threats and discomforts even among your own people. A lot of this book takes place in the gaps in other stories, in the grey areas between accustomed roles and laws, between war and peace, between hope and death, but it doesn’t just hide in the grey areas, it flourishes in them.

This takes place in such a fascinating period of time, with vast leaps in both technology and the role of women. As men went off to the front lines, women stepped into the necessary duties of farming, civil service, and medicine, but also into the increasingly perilous roles in intelligence and aviation, whihc made for some fantastic opportunities they couldn’t be sure would still exist after the war. Entire auxilliary corps of women rose up to fill those positions and became instrumental to the advances that were made. Many of the radio operators- and nearly all of the first radar operators- were women. We see not only our captive’s work in the shadowy world of intelligence operatives, but also her best friend’s work as an aviatrix, a world of planes when aviation was still fairly young and in rapid development, and female pilots were few and far between and subject to discrimination from nearly every angle. The detail in these worlds, the precision of the story and the locations, is really just mind-boggling. This doesn’t come off as historical fiction, mainly because we never feel that divorced from the story. We feel like we’re there in the middle of things.

Oh, the twists. So many twists, and so wonderfully layered. Some you can expect, if you’re paying attention to the obscure details outside of the story, but they’re still wonderful in how they come to be, and others are wonderfully, devestatingly unexpected. More heart-shattering yet are the ones you’re waiting for, the ones you know will happen but you keep hoping and praying they won’t, and then they do and it’s just staggering.

Despite ALL THE TEARS, I love that this book had the grace, strength, and courage to go for the good ending rather than the happy one (and trust me, that’s not giving anything away; this book doesn’t let you make those kinds of assumptions). I don’t mind a book leaving me with a lingering hope-tinged sorrow if it coems hand in hand with the glorious satisfaction and contentment that comes of finishing an astrounding book.

If this review comes off as seeming light on details, it’s for a reason- I don’t want to deprive you of the discoveries. It is such an amazing book, with characters that live long after the pages end. And you can’t read it just once- as soon as you get to the end, tears streaming down your face, jaw somewhere around your knees with shock, you’ll immediately want to turn back and start it again to watch with more understanding how all of these pieces fit flawlessly, gorgeously together.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year, and perhaps ever. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this one.

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, out in stores now.

Until next time~

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