Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (February 2013)
Writing Historical Novels has reached the end of its second month of articles, from this year’s diverse line-up of historical novelists from the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, India and Morocco.
Thank you to all the contributors, to everyone who has been reading the articles and those who have connected with Writing Historical Novels on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Tumblr, or via Novel Writing Quotes on Facebook or Google+.
The purpose of these Month In Review articles is to:
– provide a handy list of links to the articles for the past month, then to
– relate some of the content of these articles to my own novel writing to help novel writers and other interested people discover the month’s content and gain some insights into ways the month’s content can be engaged with in a practical context.
Articles for February 2013
This month’s articles and writing my historical novel
William Dietrich wrote: Convincing characters are even more challenging to create in historical fiction. Their decisions are constrained by real historical events and people. Their assumptions about religion, science, morality, and ambition are different than those of the 21st Century. Conditions are cruder, lifespans shorter, disease more common, punishments harsher, pain familiar, and hunger more than an abstraction. How do we get in their heads?
Michael White wrote: The essential thing to remember when you are writing historical fiction or any narrative set in an earlier time is that human beings are human beings.
Emma Darwin wrote: I love historical fiction: from childhood, all the novels that have changed and challenged my reading and writing life have been full of the lives and voices of the past. And I dislike historical fiction too: I dislike the kind which uses togas or carriages as so much set-dressing for modern emotions, beliefs and politics, and I dislike the shopworn storytelling of the C S Forester imitators, and the ‘Regency’ drivel of would-be Heyers. Above all, I dislike the docu-drama novel which does nothing but add wooden dialogue to the text-book story.
Mary Nichols wrote: There are two kinds of historical novel: those in which the history is the main thrust of the book, featuring real events and real people, written by authors who are also historians, and those in which the history is the background to the story. It is the setting of the book, not its raison d’etre. I write the latter.
That’s not to say I take liberties with history.
Gary Worthington wrote: The author’s most obvious obligation to readers is to tell a good story. I’ve always felt I have a responsibility to give my audience their money’s worth and to make their investment of time with me worthwhile. […] From childhood I’ve loved reading good historical fiction. I now try to write the books I would like to read myself; the novels that can’t yet be found in a bookstore.
Writing my own historical novel, set in 1939 Poland (and discussed in my January Month In Review post), is a matter of balancing a compelling story for contemporary readers with accuracy and a depth of historical knowledge necessary to create a realistic portrayal of my fictional characters in 1939 Poland. The challenge at the outset, and one I continue to work on, is how to get into the heads of characters based in Poland more than 70 years ago and to make these characters not only believable but also interesting to contemporary and future readers around the world. As William Dietrich noted, there are challenges in doing this well. However, as Michael White noted, humans are humans, and this common humanity and understanding of general human behaviour means I already start with a lot of knowledge about how my characters might plausibly behave in various situations.
That is not to say that general knowledge of human behaviour will be a substitute for specific research about 1939 Poland and the city of Bydgoszcz, which is my primary setting, including research into the people, their lifestyles, where they worked, what they ate, what they did in their spare time, their home-lives, how they were educated, the history of conflict between competing nationalist groupings in the region leading up to 1939, the international cirmcumstance of the beginning of WW2 in Europe, and so on. Similarly, there is a difference between researching other novels about a time and place, or how a time and place is presented in a particular academic school of thought, and researching the time and place itself.
If you imagine a spectrum of historical novels with ‘historical setting as a superficial backdrop with very little insight from the author evident’ at one end and ‘so much detail about historical setting that the novel reads like a history textbook’ at the other end, there is room for lots of good novels at various points along the middle-ground of this spectrum. However, some historical novelists go further toward either end of the spectrum than I would personally prefer as a reader.
My aim is to create a novel that works for readers with no interest in the historical setting but which also works for readers with a strong interest and advanced knowledge of the setting. This means simultaneously treating the setting as a backdrop and as a crucial element in creating a realistic depiction of the characters and their story.
Whilst one of my aims is to firmly ground my novel in its setting, there will be plenty of research done which will not be spelled out on the pages. This extra research provides a lot of subtle-yet-important details to contribute to enjoyable reading experiences. Where I think some readers will appreciate reading more about the historical context, I can write articles or a study guide to the novel and thus share extra historical context with interested readers without detracting from the storytelling in the novel.
Writing Historical Novels