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Historical Novels Versus Contemporary Novels: Some Lessons Learned, by Jane Kirkpatrick

One contemporary novel sits beside the cache of historical novels I’ve written. It was a challenge to myself writing that contemporary novel, to see if I could write a story set in this decade without the spine of history. I also wanted to see what I might learn about writing historical novels in the process. Here are three things I learned about writing historical novels that I gleaned from writing a contemporary one.

1. History is the spine of historical novels.  The flesh and blood that feeds that spine are the characters and plot and conflicts and themes that move the story forward.  I felt like a bird without wings writing a contemporary novel despite what I hoped were strong characters, a good plot, etc. But something felt missing, almost artificial in the writing because the sense of history wasn’t there.  I missed it terribly and I suspect my readers more familiar with my historical writings, did too.

2. Contemporary readers are familiar with details such as whether a character wears Ray-Ban sunglasses, drinks lattes at Starbucks every morning or wears Acropedico shoes. They know those items because they have experience with them. They bring that experience to the story and can be jarred away from the story if they find something amiss from their own experience.

Historical novel readers are more  like clean slates. As with a science fiction or fantasy reader, they’ll accept the world created by the writer so long as it is congruent and authentic. They’ll expect that world along the Oregon Trail or in 17th century England to be consistent throughout the story but they begin with allowing the author to create that world otherwise unknown to them. (I do understand that readers of a particular genre will develop that same sense of experience having read tons of novels from a favorite historical period but they are still more likely to accept the author’s rendition of the sequencing of making tallow candles than a contemporary author’s sequencing of how the barista made a character’s latte if it wasn’t how their barista makes the one they love each morning.  Unless of course, they’ve tried making tallow candles themselves).

3.  The themes of contemporary novels can be too close to the contemporary reader’s heart for them to fully immerse themselves inside the story. Readers may not want to see their relationship struggles inside the fractured marriage of a contemporary novel nor experience the suspenseful choices made by an investment banker when they are experiencing similar challenges in a relationship or business.  Somehow as readers of historical novels, we’re more forgiving of those Medieval characters who mess up or empathize more easily with the poor choices western pioneers made that got them into trouble. Becoming immersed in a contemporary story can be more difficult because there’s a certain protective shield that keeps the reader in her head and makes it more difficult to bring the story to her heart.  Historical novels tell “all the truth” as Emily Dickinson would say, but “tell it slant.” Readers step into another time and place and their protective side can be set aside allowing the themes of the story to ride in on the backs of strong characters, intriguing plots and best of all, great history.

I’m not saying I won’t write another contemporary novel.  But I’ve finished writing two historical novels since the contemporary novel came out and as a writer, I like living in the past.


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Writing Historical Novels

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Historical novel readers are more like clean slates.”

    Very descriptive and why I love Historical Fiction the very best! Kathleen

    January 21, 2013
  2. blythegifford1 #

    I have never attempted a contemporary novel and now I understand why. Excellent analysis.

    January 21, 2013
  3. Doris #

    Jane, thank you for bringing a subject we all think about to the discussion stage. Sometimes I think we avoid looking at why something we write isn’t working because it may mean we’ve wasted time. Now there is another way to look and respond and still stay focused.

    January 27, 2013
  4. I agree. I’m writing a contemporary novel and it’s as if you can’t get enough distance to really understand what motivates the characters, although, it does work better when the history, both personal and family, is shown in some way. That, of course, requires flashbacks or some device like photos whirling them back to important and life-changing incidents, giving the reader a fuller spectrum. Contemporary characters don’t arrive without their history.

    January 27, 2013
  5. Nancy Jardine #

    I have 1 historical novel and 3 contemporary novels published now as I, too, wanted to try writing in both genres. What really transpired is that I really only have 1 contemporary romance mystery, and 2 others which I now call ‘ancestral mysteries’ since ‘history’ in the form of an ancestral tree provides the clues for the main protagonists to find the answers. In the case of my recent book – Topaz Eyes – my main characters find a collection of jewels which once belonged to a Mughal emperor by tracing back members of a particular family tree. Like you, it seems I just can’t get away from my love of history!

    January 27, 2013

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