On Historical Fiction Writing

"Looking Back Through Time" by adrians_art

Over the weekend, I took a break from editing book 1 to work on a short story that’s been haunting me since 2007. It’s totally different from everything else I’ve ever written (read: it takes place in modern times and is a little gritty). I don’t know if I’ll ever do anything with it, but I thought it would be a nice change of pace. And it was.

But what surprised me most is that it gave me a whole new appreciation for historical fiction (HF). HF and fantasy are all I’ve ever tried to write because, well, apparently I enjoy other time periods and worlds more than this one (I blame it on one too many past lives). In one weekend, I wrote more words than I usually do in twice that time, all because I was writing about my own time period. What did this teach me?

  1. It takes patience to write HF – You would think after 10+ years of research I would realize that, but I guess I’m a little slow. Until I wrote about my own time period, I didn’t realize how much of my time writing HF is taken up by second guessing word origin (i.e. time period and place), looking at maps to confirm geography, or fussing over some other detail to get things just right. These details are what make HF pop, but you don’t have to think about them as much when writing modern fiction – they just come because you have a natural frame of reference. It’s one thing to transport readers within their familiar world, but to take them somewhere else in time is completely different.
  2. Good HF looks deceptively easy – Why? A good HF writer (like any professional) makes it look effortless. But in reality, HF writers voluntarily become experts in their chosen time and place. That’s not something everyone (outside of historians and archeologists) can say. And why do we do it? Well, insanity is one possibility, but mostly it’s a labor of love.
  3. I wouldn’t want to do anything else – Yes, I can write modern fiction faster. But, there’s something about being able to bring the past to life that makes HF special and makes me want to keep doing it. (I have plans beyond Guinevere and Isolde, I’m just not ready to talk about them yet.) There’s something special about resurrecting lost voices or rescuing those on the brink of being forgotten. After all, we all want to think we’ll be remembered; perhaps helping others secure their place in history will somehow assure ours.

What do you think? If you write or read HF, what draws you to it?

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6 thoughts on “On Historical Fiction Writing

  1. I commend you on being a true historical fiction writer. I don’t bother to look up when certain words started coming into use, so my writing is probably not as authentic. I do, however, make sure that objects and things (like dances) are presented in a timely manner. Or–as is the case with my current work–I explain in a “historical facts” section that “such and such a thing didn’t actually happen until X time”. Of course, I’m not writing strictly historical fiction with historical characters, as you are…I’m writing fiction that just happens to involve historical figures; which is why I’m more willing to bend history.

    • Thanks, Daya! I try not to be obsessive about it, but I do make myself think about my word choices. For example, I wanted to use the word “pariah,” but when I looked it up, I found out it’s a word derived from the Indian caste system, which of course, my characters would know nothing about. So I used the less sexy “outcast” instead (which comes from the 14th century – still not to my time period, but better). If I was going to be 100% accurate, I’d be writing in either P-Celtic or Q-Celtic (I can’t remember which is which at the moment), but since I don’t speak those, I just do the best I can with English. I try not to use contractions, but there are some cases where that’s the best way to word a sentence (I’ve seen them in other HF works of my time period, as well).

      I think as historical fiction writers, we have a responsibility to try to be accurate, but we’re not linguists, so we can’t be accurate in everything. Most historical fiction authors bend the facts a little to suit their plots. Explaining how and why is what the “author’s notes” or “historical notes” section is for, as you noted.

      • I can tell I have you reading Elizabeth Cunningham when you use terms like “P-Celtic” and “Q-Celtic”! LOL (By the way, I think P is polite and Q is conversational…but it’s been a long time since I’ve read Magdalen Rising!)

        I used some Irish words in my first novel, but my female lead lived in Ireland from 1983-1994, so I could get away with using an I/E dictionary–and corrections from an immersion student I met when I was an exchange student!

        I don’t generally fuss with contractions when I’m writing historical-related stuff, because I see them in historical fiction all the time. The only time I take them out is to signify something–in my first novel, it was because Irish was her first language. In this one, it’s because the gods are “more refined” and “better bred” than humans, and therefore speak differently.

        • Actually, Elizabeth Cunningham’s books aren’t where I first learned of P-Celtic and Q-Celtic. There’s a great book called “Women in Celtic Law and Culture” by Jack George Thompson (see my reference page) that gives a lengthy explanation on the evolution of Celtic language. The distinction I couldn’t recall is this, “Six modern Celtic languages survived into at least the 17th century A.D.: Irish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Breton, Cornish and Welsh. The first three languages all evolved from Goidelic Celtic, a dialect often referred to as Q-Celtic because it is characterized by pronouncing the ‘c’ as a hard ‘k’ or ‘qu.’ The other three Celtic languages evolved from Brythonic or P-Celtic which is characterized by representing this sound as a ‘p.'” (pages 26-27).

  2. Hey everyone, I just wanted to explain my commenting philosophy and I didn’t want to make it a separate post – so here it goes. Comments are welcome, in fact encouraged! I do my best to respond to every comment. But when I reply to you, I’m also trying to make my comment educational to everyone else who might read it, so sometimes I throw in some additional information. I’m not bragging. I just want to share what I know. To me, that’s what makes commenting so useful. It’s a chance to continue a dialogue or sometimes add information outside of the scope of the original post. Make sense? I’m also going to add this to the “author” page of this site.

  3. Pingback: Everything Old is New Again « Through the Mists of Time

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