What’s different about writing historical fiction?

fig26I love my writing critique group. Smart writers, talented, and we are honest in our criticism. None of us are in it for adulation and reassurance. We’re in it to face the firing line, get real reader reactions to what we’ve written, show ourselves as vulnerable on the way to crafting a finished product.

So when I get a similar response from several members of the group about a weakness in what they’ve read of mine, I pay attention to it. (I also pay attention to the individual responses, but they can be more matters of taste and preference.) And this past week, several group members found that I was too wordy, too explaining, adding too much detail in the scenes, that what I’d written would gain in strength by heavy use of the blue pencil.

I’m sure they’re right, and I’ll go in and doubtless find many instances where less is definitely more that I was blind to when I first drafted those pages. That’s so often true, it almost goes without saying.

But one of the members raised the question as to whether the additional detail, or over-elaboration, is something that is expected/necessary because it’s historical fiction (which he doesn’t normally read), and that made me think too.

Basically, historical fiction has to obey all the same rules as any kind of fiction. And yet, we are creating worlds that are unfamiliar to our readers. We want them to be able to picture what we picture, to be in the period.

For instance, a novel set in modern times can assume a lot more than one set in the past (and I suspect that fantasy and science-fiction also share some of this). You can say “She got dressed and went to work,” and we’ll all have a pretty good image of what that would entail. But what about in a past where, in some social milieus, one didn’t dress oneself, where it was impossible, in fact, to do so because of all the fastenings at the back, completely out of reach?

That’s an oversimplified example, but I think it’s a little to the point. I think the same group member questioned why I would specify that my heroine was driven somewhere in her father’s new Pierce-Arrow motorcar, instead of just saying she was driven. I didn’t have a ready answer, but on thinking about it, I felt that automobiles are still so new in 1910 that anyone who had one or rode in one might be hyper-aware of the novelty, and automatically think in those terms.

Of course, the real trick is to convey all that detail, all that evocation of a period and place, and not make the text feel overburdened with words. And then, you have to make sure that you don’t lose the reader for the opposite reason, because she lacks the period vocabulary to paint that mental picture. A crespine, for instance, mentioned as an item of clothing, needs to somehow be put in context as something that goes on the head. In a modern context, there’s no need to explain what you do with a hat.

I think this need of historical fiction, of drawing the reader into a world she’s completely unfamiliar with, is partly why people will read multiple books set in the same time period, or concerning the same people. Over time, they’ve built up a “vocabulary” of images that put them in that place and era, and they don’t have to work quite as hard to find their way back as they had to work to get there in the first place.

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