Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Perils of Writing Historical Fiction

Somewhere in my past, I made the masochistic decision to try my hand at historical fiction. I've been paying for it ever since.

A few years ago in a conversation with an aspiring writer, I was informed that writing historical fiction is much easier than writing science fiction or fantasy. "Sci-fi / fantasy writers have to build their entire world from scratch," he said. "A historical fiction writer's world already exists."

Apparently he's never experienced the joy of endless research and fact checking.

I won't make the mistake of claiming sci-fi and fantasy are easier than historical fiction. A good fantasy writer -- a REALLY good one -- does plenty of research of his or her own. My appreciation for skilled fantasy writers increases every time I find something about medieval alchemy, ancient history, botany, science, etc. embedded in their worlds. What I will say is anyone who thinks historical fiction is a piece of cake has absolutely no idea what he's talking about.

Let's take word choice for example. A certain word might sound good in dialogue. It might even seem 'historical.'  But if it didn't exist in 1814, your character would need to be a time traveler to use it. (Trust me, there are informed readers out there who will spot these anachronisms. If you're serious about your writing, you should strive to get it right.)

Recently I needed a 15th Century word for a Medieval outbuilding where a carriage could be kept. I wanted to use 'coach house,' but carriages weren't called 'coaches' until a decade or two after my setting. In fact, the terms 'coach house' (and 'carriage house') weren't used until two hundred years after that. Even the word 'shed' wasn't used until the latter part of the 15th Century.

I ran into a similar problem with the word 'prank.' It works fine for my father's old-time "outhouse tipping" activities, but Medieval children didn't pull 'pranks' until the 16th Century. (Children were better behaved in the good old days.)

And word choice is the least of a historical writer's worries. You really run into trouble with historically inaccurate events. It isn't uncommon (at least for me) to think I've gotten things right and then dig up more information that sends me back to rewrite, revise, and pull out a handful or two of hair.

There's also the joy of expert readers who know more about your time period than you do. Some of them really do know more, and you owe it to them to be as accurate as possible. (If you've written a scene where Hannibal and his men are going up against the Romans with sticks of dynamite and Gatling guns, you really need to put a little more effort into your research.)

To write about history you have to love it and be willing to immerse yourself in source materials. You have to visualize past events you probably weren't alive to experience and describe them so vividly your readers almost feel like they're living the events with your characters. It isn't easy, but isn't that what makes it fun?

For an excellent four-part series on the pitfalls and perils of writing historical fiction, I highly recommend Stephanie Thornton's guest blog at 49 She shares some insightful things most writers don't stop to think about.