Historical fiction is incredibly demanding to write. There are rules, there are undeniable facts and there is respect for antecedents. There are also different styles of writing the genre. In a recent post on English History Authors Blogspot the difference in those styles was examined. In fact it seems there are what one might call sub-genres: ‘history light’, ‘history interwoven’, ‘history imagined’ and ‘history based on a true story’.
To be honest, I think all historical fiction/historical romance is a combination of both ‘interwoven’ and ‘imagined’ and in many cases is loosely or closely based on a true story. The real clincher for me is whether it is light (what I often call soft) or heavy – the latter term in no way denouncing a particular book.
For example, Dorothy Dunnett is what I consider ‘heavy’. Her devotion to the detail that is fact in historical fiction is iconic. But I like to think that DD’s imagination in creating multi-faceted characters like Lymond and Niccolo within her chosen timeframes gives her an edge as a writer of perfectly classic hist. fiction.
And this is why:
If I wanted to read fact about the periods in time that interest me, I would read non-fiction – reams of it, all written by erudite academics. But I want my history to come alive – for me to smell, see, feel, hear and touch the timeframe. So I choose an author who has created an amazingly strong protagonist within a storyline and who can then reveal to me, through that character’s experiences, exactly what it was like at that time.
I hate info dumps. DD managed to educate me within an inch of my life about fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe but I never once felt I was being dumped upon from a great height. I’ve just read a mammoth hist.fict which bored me witless because it was dump after dump after dump. No character within the novel was developed enough for me to care about them, even though I had known those historic personages from my primary school years. I was saddened by the experience, as this writer is profoundly important and highly recognised.
My own stories are always character-driven. In the case of the hist.fict/hist.romance, this is especially the case. I pay due homage to the facts as I have researched them from the twelfth century but I try not to labour the point. It is perhaps like dabbing the pulse points on the body with Chanel Number Five, not bathing in it. Subtlety is all. I am perfectly happy to call my books ‘soft’, most certainly ‘imagined’. My only desire is that any reader will sink so deep into my character’s very psyche, that reaction to the historical surrounds will be an intimate and subconscious thing.
I noticed this myself recently. I was watching Restoration House and the dwelling featured had sixteenth century detail (not my chosen timeframe, as you know). I found I was speaking aloud about what we were seeing before the presenter spoke and I suddenly pulled up and thought, Oh! And then I realised just how much DD had indeed passed onto me in her own inimitable way.
So that’s the way I write my own hist.fict/hist.romance novels – it becomes an experience rather than a classroom lesson. Right or wrong? I think it’s all incredibly personal … readers will always choose according to their own predilection! Feel free to tell me yours…
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I totally agree that historical fiction is most demanding – a balance between fact and possibilities arising therefrom.
Absolutely! ‘The possibilities that arise therefrom’… a few perfectly chosen words to explain the best hist.fict
I think your light touch with world-building carries over very well from fantasy. I am a sponge for information in historical fiction, and I’m still very comfortable in your 12th century world. As in your Eirie novels, there’s just enough strangeness to be felt as a low hum throughout the novel. I don’t think I’ve ever been jolted out of my suspension of disbelief in any of your books by too much or too little history.
Thanks for commenting Pat. Respect for the fact is ‘de rigeur’ in historical fiction but I think the most successful author is one who can sink his characters and plot into the nap of history – and everyone knows what happens to the nap on velvet if one overworks it! Dorothy Dunnett does it perfectly, Posie Graeme Evans, SJA Turney, Angus Donald, Anya Seton, Colin Falconer…so many over the years! They tell a superb story but don’t flatten that nap.
I agree. DD was my inspiration, along with others I’ve read including Prue.My books are soft, though pretty bloody. Patrick O’Brien’s are hard, as are Hilary Mantel’s, I think. Historical novels have to be true to the time, but the human condition doesn’t change.
Hilary Mantel and Patrick O’brien heavy? Most definitely. Or perhaps we should use the word ‘dense’. I applaud your view that the human condition doesn’t change, as well. We love, we hate, we fight, we feel pain, we live in peace, we eat, we sleep, we give birth, we die. Into those elements and within a timeframe it’s possibly to create THE most magic story. Thanks so much for commenting.
Things in high school would have been so much easier to learn if we’d been able to learn it through reading historical fiction. I’ve learnt so much more about the start of Australia, or the plague in London (for instance) in a much shorter amount of time (and yet the same high level of interest!) through reading than I did with their way of teaching.
Oh Katharine, how I agree! I majored in history at university. My second year was exclusively medieval history and thanks to an INSPIRED lecturer, the medieval era lived and breathed for me, but in first and third years (Australian history and 17-19 century respectively) I was a lost soul floundering in weekly if not daily info dumps by voices that had no nuance or soul in the telling. It’s an ugly gap in my education that could so easily have been filled.
I’ve always enjoyed history. As an American my history does not go as far back. But I developed an interest in English navel stories . Patrick O’Brien has been my favorite lately.History comes to life in many stories and I am just now starting to discover medieval times. When you can feel a part of the story history comes to life and you can absorb the facts so much easier.