Monday, April 7, 2014

Should You Write A Historical Novel

Jennifer Rova

Yes! The field of historical novels may seem crowded but not many authors are currently writing this genre. Some eras like mid 1600s are saturated with numerous books about the Tudor and Stewart kings and queens (Phillippa Gregory et al). Bernard Cornwell has fairly well sewn up the crusader knights’ scenario as has Jean Auel for prehistoric chronicles (Clan of The Cave Bears). John Jakes did a wonderful job with The Kent Chronicles for the Revolutionary War period and the success of Gone with The Wind almost makes it impossible to write about the Civil War as we feel we know all about that time. 12 Years A Slave says pooh-pooh to that theory. A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls by Hemingway seem to kibosh the idea of a novel set in the late 1930's. However, those two novels were set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Sarah Gruen (Water for Elephants), Joe David Brown (Paper Moon) and Michael Ondailje (The English Patient) were not dissuaded by Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or Hemingway's books.  They wrote stories that were huge commercial successes set in the same era. You should not think that everything has already been written. What would stop you from writing a novel set in the late 1930's in America or Ireland or Norway? Or a Civil War novel even though Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker is a recent success? Maybe you are the next Louie Lamoure with your gunslinger-gone-good-frontier novel.

The only things stopping you would be a deep distaste for research and propensity to ignore details. The majority of the work by authors of historical fiction are hours of research into the details of the period in which books are set. Many authors take up to three years to finish a historical fiction novel. Readers do not tolerate inaccuracies. They will catch if you if you have a scene where the man hears of the death of Abraham Lincoln via a telephone call in Oregon Territory which did not have telephone lines until much later. Did Eisenhower swear during cabinet meetings? Did the astronauts play cards while orbiting? When were zippers invented? Was a brougham still in use in 1900? When did the term "housedress" become common? How often did Marie Antoinette bathe? Can you see the ground where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake? (Yes, in the center of Rouen, France.)

Historical fiction can have drama, humor, tragedy, paranormal scenes, wars, social and or political emphasis. Murder, romance or war can be a main theme. Each must be accurate in the details. When were shoelaces invented? Would your character say "The thief sold the necklace to a fence" or would he say in a 1600's setting "The footpad sold it to a spiv"? You must know the period of your novel intimately enough to understand the customs, manners, dress, political events, geography and common phrases. In Gone with The Wind Prissy famously wails, "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies" versus "I don't know how to help Melanie have a baby."

Realize that you are writing about another time and place with different biases. The social mannerisms, values, economic, household goods and religions were practiced differently. Your characters should act as they would have during those times without judgment by the author. 

You may choose a time that interests you and develop a story in that time. You can write your story in brief outline form then choose a period and adjust the details. In either case, it is recommended that you check facts from at least three different sources. We all know the Internet can be wrong despite reading the same fact in three articles. It is suggested reading several books and/or articles and taking notes (without plagiarizing). Do your own research. Then if you are up for it, talk to the author of one of the books and ask questions. By doing your research first, you will know what questions to ask and not waste his or her time and the author may share his notes with you. Or not.

The primary places to look for facts are the real thing. Check artifacts and documents in museums, Look at film reels, photos, letters, diaries, news articles, exhibits of fashions, artillery, and archived drawings of homes and buildings. Read professional analyses of the subject. Read many books both fiction and nonfiction set in the time but check your facts; an author may not have. Do not depend upon movies for being correct about any details. Historical fiction is first fact based, second a good story.

U.S. Public Libraries: http.//
British Libraries: http://www.royal historical
Library of Congress: 
Presidential Libraries: see individual presidents' web sites
Free Graphic Organizers for Writers: 

A friend wrote a historical novel about the man who fired "the shot hear round the world" that started the Revolutionary War. He self -published after learning no publisher or agent would touch his "perfect" novel and he sold three copies, two to family and one to me. He missed several important points. The end of the book was where the man leaves his sweetheart and heads for the fields of Concord, Massachusetts. The beginning of the novel was about his love of guns and hunting with the Indians. The middle of the story was about him cleaning his various guns and talking with this friends about hunting and worrying about running into British soldiers. I never "bonded" with the character not having developed an interest in guns nor wanting to. My friend lacked showing the flavor of the times and did not explain why this man was motivated to run off and fight British soldiers. Little time was spent developing his persona through his clothes, housing and every day activities much less the political feelings of him, his friends and his token sweetheart. I was excited when I heard the premise of his proposed book. I like stories set in the mid to late 1700's. His beginning could have worked with the proper set up but it seemed to me that he ended where he should have started. Do you know how hard it is to come up with words when your friend says, "Well, what do you think?"


Elizabeth S. Brinton said...

One trick of writing historical fiction is to not let all the neat stuff you find in your research outweigh the story. I suspect most writers work it in, and then take a great deal of it out, so the balance is just right. Certainly, all the books you named, novels I have read and enjoyed, really got the hang of it. If the reader can feel the sense of the time, and see the characters and their challenges, then they are in the grip of a terrific author. I loved this post! Thank you.

Jennifer Rova said...

Thanks, Elizabeth. Your point about not letting the history aspect of your historical fiction book overwhelm is an excellent and important one. The history should complement the story not vice versa.