This post originally appeared in Late Last Night Books on 20 September 2017.
A friend of mine is an author whose favored genre is contemporary noir fiction—hard-boiled, edgy, dark. Since that’s what he writes, that’s also what he reads. Without prompting, though, he read my novel of historical fiction set in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Washington, D.C., a story that could never be described as “edgy”. Graciously, he told me what he liked about it, but concluded by saying, “I write fiction so I can make [stuff] up. Historical fiction seems like way too much work.”
He’s got a point. Fiction is supposed to be fictional, right? Why go to the effort of having to do a ton of research and ensure detailed accuracy (because you know how those historical fiction fans are about that) when the story is supposed to be invented?
Sometimes I do find myself envying my contemporary fiction peers, who seem to have a much easier job of it. Historical novelists could pump out books a whole lot faster if they didn’t have to slow down for all that pesky research.
But even contemporary writers need to do research depending on the subject. If they’re writing about an unfamiliar field or area of expertise, or a different culture or geographical region, all of that takes investigation to get it right. But putting any of those issues two hundred — or two thousand — years in the past increases the extent and complexity of research by orders of magnitude.
Consider Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel, Homegoing, a bestseller that received the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Leonard Award for a debut, along with many other accolades. The novel is astonishing in its sweep: not only does it span three hundred years, it spans three hundred years in parallel on two continents, inhabits multiple cultures on both continents, and changes the characters it follows with each new chapter. Even for an historical fiction writer, that’s an exceptionally tall order. But that scope was critical to the book she wanted to write, which shows the reverberations and repercussions of slavery across time, geography, culture, social fabric, and — most importantly —people.
When it comes to research, the danger for writers of historical fiction is knowing when to say when. Most learn to let the story drive the research, doing just-in-time homework to understand historical context or events, and to fill in the details.
The other peril of research is the author’s being so proud of what she’s learned (or having spent so much time learning it) that she wants to shoehorn it all in. The mark of a talented writer is that the story is infused with a sense of the time and place, and that any details are organic to the story and placed correctly in time — so that a character in 1920 would button a garment rather than zip it.
The trick for authors is to understand for themselves what something looked like, how it worked, or how it was used at that time so that the words they choose are appropriate. No contemporary fiction author would describe what a telephone looks like, and neither should an historical fiction author, but he needs to be capable of picturing the phone his character is using, and to be aware, for example, that the phone is connected to a party line.
Historical fiction tends to go in and out of popularity over time. Twenty years ago, when Richard Lee established the Historical Novel Society (HNS), he says, “it was a genre everyone said was dead. Or if not dead, it was at the nadir of fashion.” Now, a reader can find historical fiction in every single sub-genre imaginable: romance, mystery, horror, thriller, YA, LGBT, sci-fi, and fantasy. Westerns are by definition historical, as is Steampunk, a relatively new addition to the histfict cannon. Of course, there is also the “alternative history” sub-genre of historical fiction.
I write reviews for the Historical Novels Review, HNS’s quarterly publication. Each issue contains hundreds of reviews, organized by general time period, beginning with prehistoric, and moving through biblical, classical (that is, ancient Greece or Egypt) into the centuries from first through twentieth, then on to the hard-to-categorize, such as “timeslip” — think Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. A committed reader could read nothing but Edwardian or Regency-era fiction and never run out of books; I’ve heard (but have no evidence myself) that books of U.S. historical fiction, particularly early to mid-twentieth century, are especially “hot” right now.
So when people tell me, “Oh, I love historical fiction,” it’s a natural impulse for me to ask, “Yes, but what kind?”
For anyone asking why an author would bother with the extra labor that comes with historical fiction, part of the answer may be that there is a huge market for it. But for most writers, I think, it’s that even the most cursory glance backwards can generate a lifetime of compelling story ideas. So often, a writer will catch a snippet of an historical account and just know there’s a great story in there, with just “a little” digging. Author Carrie Callaghan saw a seventeenth-century self-portrait of Dutch painter Judith Leyster hanging in the National Gallery of Art. Carrie’s debut novel, A Light of Her Own (due out next November from Amberjack Publishing), is a direct result of that encounter.
I look for ideas everywhere. I review a lot of non-fiction, both for HNS (yes, even the fiction guys read non-fiction sometimes) and for the Washington Independent Review of Books. Often, I choose books because I think I’ll find interesting historical information that might be useful later, such as in Greg Jenner’s A Million Years in a Day: A Curious History of Everyday Life from the Stone Age to the Phone Age, and Steam Titans: Cunard, Collins, and the Epic Battle for Commerce on the North Atlantic, by William M. Fowler Jr. — and, yes, I did, in both cases.
For myself, I write historical fiction to remove myself — and, I hope, my readers — from the clutter of the known, everyday “here” and to go to a different place, to be, as it were, transported. I also find that it’s sometimes more effective to make an observation about the lives that we live today by approaching that point from a remove, through the reflection of history. My current project takes place in the U.S. of the early twentieth century, but I’m drawn to the specific topics because of the parallels to today’s social, cultural, and political climate. Writing a contemporary story about these same issues, while we’re in the midst of them, would, to my mind, feel too raw, and would overshadow the story I want to tell. Coming at a subject obliquely allows readers to put their guard down and simply let the story seep in.
And no matter what kind of fiction an author is writing, any reader knows: we just want a good story.