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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A Decade Later

September 11, 2011 at 10:00 am (General) (, , )

A decade after the events of 11 September 2001, it still seems like it’s all anyone can talk about. It’s a part of our national consciousness, an indelible part of our awareness that may never fade. Television stations, websites, newspapers, radio, every media form is drowning in coverage and memories. I know there are a number of people who are sick of hearing it, sick of reliving it, and just want to move forward because ten years later we still can’t change what happened, only how we live our lives from here on out. I can understand that; there comes a point where it all becomes more than a bit maudlin. There’s only so many times you can see the same footage before you reach to turn off the TV. There comes a point when you look at reporters digging up the worst day of a person’s life again and again and again to ask the same questions every year and you just wish, deeply and fervently, that everyone would just leave that poor person alone.

But here’s the thing- 9/11 affected us as a nation in a way nothing else in recent(ish) memory has. I’m not talking politically; I’m talking personally. Everyone was affected by that day. Everyone has a story to tell, something deeply personal. The same themes filter through thousands of memories but everyone has a story, and today- just as ten years ago- sharing those stories brings us all together into a single entity: America. We live in a divisive, fractious society but that day, we were all united in the wake of a tragedy unlike anything we could have imagined.

Ask any good Southern girl, she’ll tell you that a porch swing and a glass of lemonade make for a nice day; a porch swing and an older person make for a history lesson. When I was little, I used to sit with my grandmother in the craft circle at church and listen to the older woman swap history. They could tell you with frightening clarity exactly what they were doing when JFK was shot. Most of them could still tell you what they were wearing when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That baffled me. The idea that anything could be that riveting was foreign to me.

But then came 9/11.

When I came out of my third period geometry class, the hallways were buzzing. Big deal, right? It’s high school; the hallways were always buzzing. My fourth period class was practically right around the corner, less than a minute away, but as I passed one of the other math classrooms, one whose door was open, I was stopped by the sight of the TV. The math teachers never turned their TVs on. As I stood and watched with a small cluster of other students, surrounded by curses and insults as others had to detour around us to get to class, the newscaster explained that a plane had been flown directly into one of the towers. There were a lot of people who thought it was a movie and couldn’t figure out why the teacher was showing it, except that that buzz in the hallways was increasingly filled with the same words. Planes. Two towers. Hijack. Then it switched to live coverage and, as we watched in the four minutes between classes, the second plane flew in.

Our section of the hallway fell absolutely silent. The door to my next class was less than twenty feet away so I stood there in the hall and stared incomprehendingly at the television mounted on the wall. The math teacher, whose name I didn’t know then and still don’t now, sat behind her desk and sobbed.

But the tardy bell rang and we hurried into our classes and everyone was talking about it. One of the boys reached up to turn the TV on, but our English teacher told him no.

There was another moment of stunned silence as we all turned to stare at her.

She said our watching the news wasn’t going to change anything that was happening in New York, but it was going to waste a day of learning and we had things to do. The television was not going on.

In a way, I understood- keeping us busy might have been a good way to keep us distracted from everything that was happening, and she was right in that we couldn’t change anything- but there were people in that room with family in New York City. At least two of them had family working in the towers. We all wanted to know what was going on, and there’s nothing quite like a class of AP English Language juniors to spark a debate on the subject, and protests flew like crazy through the room, but the TV stayed off and the lecture went forward as planned. I’m not sure any of us heard a word of it; we were too busy trying to hear through cinder block walls into the classroom next door.

Then the door opened and my friend Jenn, an office aide for the period, stood there with a blue summons slip in her hand. She glanced through the classroom, I thought to find the teacher, but she looked straight at me. Looked like she was about to cry, actually. She practically threw the slip at me and ran back down the hall. The slip didn’t tell me much- I was needed at the office because my mother was on the phone. Strange, especially given my mother’s boss at the time (let’s call them less than understanding or flexible and leave it at that) but whatever. I showed the slip to my teacher and walked down the hall to the office.

Hallways in the middle of class are always strange things, not quite silent for the strains of lectures or class activities that drift through doors and windows of classroom. The women in the front office were sniffling, one sobbing openly, but the stacks of blue slips at their elbows steadily grew at they tracked through the school records to find where students were. As soon as the aides came in they went back out with a new slip, but they had them do it one by one to keep the traffic in the office to a minimum.

I’d interpreted the message to mean that my mother had called and I needed to call her back, but she was actually still on the phone. Already not a good sign. I could hear the strain in my mom’s voice, the way it pulls taut when she’s been crying but trying not to, and she asked me how I was doing. To which I answered very truthfully, I’m confused as hell. Then she says “Dot, we haven’t heard from your dad yet.”

My dad?

My dad didn’t live or work in New York, and to the best of my knowledge, he hadn’t been given an assignment or inspection there, so I wasn’t sure how he’d suddenly come into the conversation and told her so. There was a long silence and then- carefully, tentatively- she says “Dot, another plane was flown into the Pentagon. It…it hit the section with your dad’s office.”

And suddenly the world tilted. I know she was still saying something, knew that one of the office ladies was asking me something, but I couldn’t hear anything. All I knew was this unbearable tightness in my chest- the precursor to a panic attack. I hadn’t known about that other plane because the damn TV in my classroom was off. Mom asked me if I needed her to come take me home and I almost said yes- until I realized she’d have to go back to work and I’d be sitting all alone in the house staring at the televison.

I elected to stay at school so I could be with my friends. Being alone at that point seemed like a very bad idea. Mom said she’d keep trying to get in touch with my dad and she’d let me know as soon as she knew anything, and that I was to call her if I needed her or if I changed my mind and wanted to go home, or even just wanted to come to her office. I stayed in the school office for another minute or two to catch my breath, and watched some other unlucky kid follow me to the phone with his blue slip clutched in hand. He was a freshman, new not just to the school but to the town, and his mother was calling to tell him that his aunt had been on one of the planes.

There are times when I’m a coward.

That was one of them, and I escaped back to the hallway before I could see how he reacted. I was already crying over not knowing what had happened with my dad, I didn’t think I could handle seeing someone else know they’d lost someone.

When I got back to my English class, I walked right up to the TV and turned it on. My teacher started to walk over to turn it back off and as much as I normally loved that teacher, I’m pretty sure I would have knocked her on her ass if she’d gone through with it. If there was even the slightest chance that I’d see my dad in the crowd as news coverage showed the Pentagon, that TV was staying on.

Well, I probably wouldn’t have punched her. But I would have taken my stuff and gone to the library for the rest of the period so I could watch it there.

She left it on but muted it.

I had first lunch, which I normally spent outside with my friends in a technically out of bounds area between the auditorium drama room, auditorium, and band and chorus hallway. That day we spent it inside the drama classroom, despite the fact that there was a class going on in there, because our drama teacher knew there wasn’t going to be any teaching that day. Some days you just give in gracefully to the inevitable and serve as counselor to those who are waiting to hear the worst. I couldn’t eat for the nausea that clenched my stomach, so we sat along the back counter like a line of gargoyles and stared at the television and wondered how the world could be any worse. Over and over, we watched the first plane hit, watched the second tower hit, watched the Pentagon burn, watched the towers fall. Over and over we watched the faces of those who had barely escaped with their lives.

And watched others enter the wreckage of the towers knowing they’d never walk out again, but hoping they could get others out in their stead.

Fifth period was AP Psych, with a teacher I loved largely for his biting, irreverent and usually downright insulting sense of humor, but he simply took roll and kept the TV on. Said we could analyze it once everyone had heard the necessary news from home. I sat on the floor against one wall and my friend Kristin sat beside me with her arm around my shoulders because by that point I was so cold I was shaking. It wasn’t cold in the classrooms, it was just me. Every time they showed the Pentagon I wanted to look away because somewhere in the midst of those flames was my dad’s office. I didn’t dare look away because what if the camera panned to all the activity outside the building and it showed him alive and well?

Gradually we learned more. The planes had been hi-jacked by terrorists, which at that point was as unfathomable to me as anything else about the day. We heard about Flight 93 and the incredible bravery and sacrifice of those on board. We saw the emergency responders and learned just how few of them were expected to make it back out.

And then my psych teacher was kneeling in front of me with a note from the office in his hand, and he gave me a hug and told me “Your dad’s okay. Dot, your dad is okay. He’s safe.”

And I started sobbing.

It was hours before I could actually talk to him- the lines were so busy there were entire sections of New York and DC that were unreachable by phone.

He’d forgotten his lunch.

Isn’t that a crazy thing? He’d forgotten his lunch and didn’t want to deal with a crowd or rush, so he took an early lunch to go out and get a sandwich to bring back to his office for later. That stupid sandwich saved his life.

The physical and emotional fallout wasn’t limited to that day. It isn’t limited to that week, to that month, to that year. We’re still feeling it. In some ways, we always will. Ten years later, I can still close my eyes and I’m back in that hallway between third and fourth period, still baffled as I watch the second plane fly into the tower.

Everyone has a story to tell about that day. It’s the kind of day that necessarily changes lives, changes people, changes a nation.

As we mark this anniversary and honor those who lost their lives on this day ten years ago, as we recognize all those who lost family and friends, as those of us who got the good news call feel grateful and guilty at once, let us also remember the incredible spirit that bound us together in the wake of this tragedy. Honor and recognize the people, but also the innate human goodness that led to such charity, as aid was rushed in from all over the country and world, as businesses opened their doors. Remember the day the newscasters openly wept and every tiny victory was celebrated. Remember the heroes, because there were so many that day.

And remember, as we honor this day in our past, that there’s so much more to look to in our future.

God bless.

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