Rule #5: Watch Out for First Person. I put down
three books recently because I was annoyed with the first person viewpoint,
which came across as self-absorbed. Unless you're writing in the form
of letters or journals, make sure any first-person character has a good reason
to be telling his story. People tend not to like people who notice themselves
too much or describe themselves or seem overly aware of how others perceive
them. Anyone relating a story about himself -- what he said, what he was
wearing, what inflection he had in his voice or what gesture he made as he
spoke some pronouncement -- we dismiss as annoying and self-important. We feel
the same about characters. There are many beautiful books written in first
person, but know the challenge of this before you start out, and be sure to
give a credible reason why your character needs to tell his story and why he
deserves an audience.
Rule #6: Don't Get Bogged Down by Back-story. It
is easy to be overly dutiful and bore your readers with too much background
information delivered too soon. There is no surer way to lose your reader than
to answer every question before he wonders about it. Don't explain everything
up front or set things up too thoroughly. Instead, let your story unfold
dramatically. Clarity will emerge eventually. The trick is to delay telling
back-story for as long as possible. You will find that most of it is never
needed. It percolates up through the real story when the real story gets
PS: I usually have no trouble following #5; I, too, dislike first person narratives. But in the case of my upcoming "The Road to Frogmore," there are a few short sections told by a slave woman watching the process of emancipation. The whites around her have no idea of how she feels, so it is important to let her speak for herself. Which all goes to prove the old adage, I suppose, that rules are made to be broken.
Rule # 3: Keep Your Conscience Clean. If your
characters are based on real people and you are using the names, be reasonably
responsible to the originals. You are probably going to have to fill in a lot
of gaps in the historical record: you may know from the record what a
person did and when he did it, but not why. It's the "why" that
defines his character. Ask yourself: Am I getting this right? Am I getting it
close to right? Am I doing this person a disservice?
Rule #4: Resist Judging Your Characters. We live
in the 21st century with certain shared values: our society disapproves of
prejudice and chauvinism and provincialism. But your characters are people of
their own times; allow them to be bigoted or politically backwards. Don't pass
judgment on them, don't apologize for their mistakes, and don't attempt to
make them all into free thinkers who are ahead of their times. You have to be
able to see the story from their perspective, even if it offends you. If you
judge your characters, you will date your book. Years from now when your own
moral sensibilities are antiquated, your book will be too.
CPS: Some important points here. I run into these very issues in my upcoming book, "The Road to Frogmore." I'm writing about real people -- abolitionists -- who are dedicated to emancipation for slaves but constantly facing their own critical attitudes toward those slaves. Are they prejudiced? My 21st-century sensibilities say they were, but they don't seem to realize the depth or significance of their reactions. So how to treat it? I'm still wondering if I got it right.
Rule #2: Dump the Ballast. In order to write
authentic historical fiction you must know a period of time well enough
to disappear daily through a wormhole to the past and arrive at the location
of your story. There you must understand the customs and use the manners
perfectly enough to be accepted by people walking the streets (if there are
streets) and to dress yourself, and make a living. This said, the major trick
of writing good historical fiction is not in compiling research
or knowing the details, but in knowing the details to leave out. Try to avoid
overwriting. Keep perspective on what will interest the reader. Historical
fiction writers tend to be overly conscientious and excited by minutia: if
you succumb to excess, and put in too much detail, then go back later and take
some of it out.
Think of your novel as a boat that is about to sink from
having too much weight on board: some of the loved items will have to go. Toss
them over with impunity! Throw them out! If a rare, surprising statistic, or a
moving anecdote, or an obscure reference you saw to an interesting thing that
happened in the county adjacent to the one where your story takes place, does
not advance your plot or provide your reader with important information about
your characters, then it is irrelevant to your story and must go overboard.
Keep in mind that the care, and time, it took to
assemble all that you have just thrown out has not been wasted. It was
necessary to gather these facts and assess their worth in order to know which
ones to save.
PS. I'm guessing that Elizabeth is speaking directy to me here, as I have a tendency to collect odd facts. Yestrday on our travels, I met a cat with half a tail and learned she had survived Katrina. Further down the road, we saw a woman police office who carried bright pink handcuffs. How humiliating! Will I find a place for them in a future book? Maybe not, but . . . .
Please welcome Elizabeth Crook's posts on historical fiction this week.
Rule #1: Sweat the Small Stuff. The authenticity
of historical fiction depends on your knowledge and use of historical
detail. It is not enough to say a character walked down the street. The reader
has to be able to see the street, see the conveyances; he has to smell the
smoke from the factories or the sewage in the gutter. If there are street
vendors, he has to know what they're selling. This is a new world: the reader
can't fathom it unless you give him images. These should be accurate and not
recycled from old movies.
Here are two suggestions apart from the usual
methods of research.
1. Find experts on the topics you need to learn
about. It's easier to track down someone who knows about sheep ranching in the
1890's or the origins of the New York subway system, and to call them up when
you need to know about scabies or the early methods of blasting tunnels, than
it is to find, in documents or on the internet, the exact answer to every
question that comes up in the course of writing a book. If you're going
to write a scene involving a train wreck in 1891, get some books on train
wrecks, read enough to know what you're talking about, google the authors and
find out where they work. Call them up and see if they'll talk to you. Latch
on to the friendly ones. "What about the couplers?" you can ask
them, having read enough to know that faulty couplers were a major factor in
train wrecks. "If this is 1891, what kind of couplers would we
have?" I once needed to know about Mormons in Mexico. I googled
"Mormons in Mexico," found a woman who had written a dissertation on
a Mormon settlement near Juarez and tracked her down through the school. She
spent two hours on the phone with me describing vividly the Mormon settlement
that my characters needed to visit. Dozens of experts on a wide range of
topics have generously helped me in similar ways.
2. If your story takes place after catalogs were in
use, get hold of reprints of old catalogs. I have an 1895 Montgomery Ward
Catalog that has descriptions of, and prices for, almost every personal item
used by people of that time: hardware, books, stationery, toys, guns,
toiletries, wallpaper, stoves, laundry equipment, harnesses and saddlery --
the list goes on and on. It represents the lifestyle of that decade.
I keep arguing that I write historical fiction based on the lives of real figures because the real ones lead much more interesting lives than fictional ones. That's also the reason I studied medieval history. Such drama! Such juicy gossip! For example, here's a story I borrowed from Sharon Kaye Penman this morning. It refers to an incident I mentioned in my last Arnulf post -- the death of King Stephen's son during the English Civil War. Sharon wrote in her blog:
happened on August 17, 1153 that no novelist would dare to invent, for
readers tend to be rather skeptical of coincidences in novels. On
this day King Stephen’s eldest son and heir, Eustace, died suddenly at
Ipswich, apparently choking after eating eels. Eustace had spent the
summer raiding and pillaging Cambridgeshire and had been cursed by Abbot
Ording of St Edmundsbury (today’s Bury St Edmunds) for attacking their
abbey, so people were quite quick to conclude that Eustace’s death was
divine retribution for such spectacular sins.
"This was a major blow
to Stephen, both as a king and as a parent, and indeed it would soon
lead to a negotiated peace with the other claimant for the English
throne, the young Duke of Normandy, Henry Fitz Empress.
"And as if
Eustace’s death were not proof enough to medievals that God was on
Henry’s side, any doubts of that were erased when word spread that on
the very day Eustace had breathed his last,
Henry’s new wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, had given birth to a healthy
son, William. In fifteen years of wedlock to the French king Louis,
Eleanor had presented him with just two daughters, and now she’d given
Henry his firstborn son and heir just fifteen months after they’d been
wed at Poitiers. I don’t imagine that Louis sent them a christening