Sunday, April 15, 2007

What is the Recipe for Good Historical Fiction?

Lectitans Question of the Weekend: "What is the recipe for good historical fiction? There are a lot of demands on historical fiction. It's got to be true to its period, while still telling an interesting story. That is, I imagine, a difficult balance for an author. How can an author achieve that balance successfully? Who are some authors that have done so? Is one period more suited to historical fiction than others?"

Leave your answer at Lectitans' blog; if you post the answer to your own blog (like me) go over and leave your link at her blog.

My answer: I'm one of those readers who read historical fiction for the history. So, I want to be able to trust the history the author includes; nothing annoys me more than an author saying "oh, I write fiction so you cannot rely on anything in my book!". Then label it fantasy (like Mimus); or have an explicit note at the end where you say what you tweaked or changed; or have it be alternate-history, again obvious (either thru a note or thru the subject matter.)

I adore notes at the end of historical fiction; to know what was real, what was not, and further reading. That's me. When does a fiction book "need" such a note? When on the cover it states it's based on a true story; to a lesser extent, if a "real person" is a main character or a "real historical event" is the primary point of the story. But, if it just happens to be the story of a kid living in the 13th century -- I still like a note, but it's not critical. One reason I like Ann Rinaldi is that while she does play fast and loose with the facts, she acknowledges that she does so in her notes at the end of her books.

Part of the reason I like historical fiction is I like history; and part of what I like about history is how people thought, lived, what they ate, what they wore, the details of everyday life; and how their world view was different. I think the what they ate/ wore/ said is "easy" for a writer; what is hard is the world view, especially when that viewpoint is radically different from today, particularly about issues such as gender roles, slavery, religion, and war. For many of these, what a reader actually gets is the present day viewpoint; the narrator of the book is almost a time traveler from the present.

I think any time period is possible; actually, I prefer the books about time periods that aren't over populated. Or stories that aren't overtold. One example: Jane Yolen's Girl In A Cage.

I prefer the books that don't take the traditional telling. For example, why do all books published in the US about the Irish potato famine end with the family moving to the US? Yes, that happened for some families; but if the children's books published in the US was the only source of information, a child would believe that no one was left in Ireland.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for your answer! I'm glad you addressed world view. That was one of the issues I meant to include in my question, but I forgot once I was actually writing it up. It's so hard to travel into a past mindset, and I think, were I writing historical fiction, I'd be scared that if my narrator were accurate to it, my own opinions would be judged based on my character's voice.

Monica Edinger said...

I am not able to post to livejournal evidently, but I do just want to mention this is one of the major question of my curriculum. My students answered it on their blogs. Here are some links to my post on the class blog. To see what the kids wrote, you need to go to their individual blogs linked on the right.

Saints and Spinners said...

Your point about all books published during the Irish potato famine end with the family moving to the United States reminds me of the meme "Things I learned from watching the movies."

Little Willow said...

YES to the world view portion of things. Many seem to get the basic general details - food - dates and times of events - proper, but forget to get the opinions and beliefs of the time, to make the dialogue sound accurate (without being stereotypical either), and to make the physical appearance (especially average weight and height) typical of the time and place.