Tag Archives: writing historical fiction

the mistorical mystery

I recently lost a good couple of hours trawling through the Dear Author post in which they introduced the tag “mistorical”. It refers to historical novels that get historical facts wrong.

Fierce debate ensued.

Is historical accuracy necessary for the enjoyment of a novel? Is it even possible? Is “mistorical” derogatory in tone (mis = mishap, mistake, misogyny)? Does the onus for historical knowledge rest with the reader or the writer?

There is, of course, no right answer, so really the debate could go on forever. It makes for pretty interesting reading.

I wrote a post ages ago about my approach to language in my historical fiction. My main point was that the mood or intention invoked by the language is more important to me than its accuracy.

But reading the Dear Author post and the ensuing furore, I asked myself for possibly the first time: Why do I write historical fiction? Why not set my stories in the modern day?

I’m not in the camp of the history lovers. I find the details of other times interesting (like, did you know that men often cried in public in Regency England to express their sensitivity? They even did it in Parliament.) but the idea of “researching” fills me with dread. Every detail I uncover requires another couple of years of study. I mean, really, you need to explore the whole of history, and then the whole of history is just a bunch of people’s opinions on stuff that may or may not have happened, right?

On the other hand, I like to check things on Wikipedia at the very least, like who was actually the Prime Minister at that time, and what veges were in season at the time of year that my heroine’s gardening.

So the history in and of itself is not, I think, the reason I write historical fiction.

One attraction is the obvious social restrictions. I think we’re actually no less socially restricted now than people were “back then”, but because it’s just life to us the unspoken, early-learned rules are almost impossible to distinguish. (This also makes up a large part of my previous post about writing “historical” language. The rules wouldn’t have taken up a huge amount of brain space for people back then either. It would have just been life.) But back to the point: Obvious social restrictions create more obvious external obstacles to a man and woman being free – or even having the opportunity – to fall in love.

One commenter on the Dear Author post made the point that marrying for love – the central premise of a romance novel – is already an anachronistic concept in a historical period like the Regency, so why sweat the small stuff? This is another appealing characteristic of the historical setting: Love is more obviously a courageous and subversive act than it is in the modern day. (I think it still is today, but as most of us strive to marry for love it’s sometimes harder to see.)

It’s easier to put a hero or heroine in a difficult circumstance, because so many other people had power over their lives. There was no option for women to go and set themselves up in a different city – or hey, a different country – if they didn’t like the way they were being treated by someone else. And most of them relied 100% on someone else for food, shelter and clothing. Men had the cultural pressure of maintaining bloodlines, titles and estates, and providing for their women. I’ve been thinking a lot about my contemporary teen heroines and it’s tough to put the same kind of financial and emotional restrictions on them.

And lastly I think there’s the complete fairytale of it. There’s a duke to marry, and an unspoiled English countryside to enjoy, and carriages to ride in, and servants to bring you hot chocolate in bed, and buckets and buckets of money.

A suggestion that came out of the Dear Author post was that a sub-genre be created along the lines of Historical Fantasy (or, my favourite suggestion, Bodice Punk). The book’s world would be based upon the real historical world, but without adhering to precise details, dates or people.

If I had to choose, I’d say I write Bodice Punk. My books are definitely set in the dream of a world gone by, rather than in that world itself.

history and language

As you know, I’ve been workshopping my first chapter in class. There’s been quite a lot of debate over whether it’s appropriate for my characters to say fuck or not (given that it’s set in the Regency – England in the early 1800s).

My reasoning is this:

The first, most important thing to me, is that people living “back then” would have felt just as modern as we do – they were living into a future that was moving beyond them, in a world that progressed without cease. They were human beings whose self-expression defined them (to the extent that men would weep in parliament just to make a point, people).

I cannot possibly reconstruct what natural conversation sounded like back then – as it moved unrehearsed between people.

If I try to sound “ye olde”, or use the kind of language that seems of the time, all it will convey to modern audiences is a stiff self-consciousness in the characters that they are of a bygone era.

So what I do is use language more flexibly, so that the characters feel modern and expressed to a modern audience. This feeling is more important to me – and seems to express more truly the actual nature of the characters – than trying to be strictly correct when I will never be able to be word-perfect anyway.

Here’s where I need to mention that writers I admire manage to do both, i.e. use historically-accurate/appropriate vernacular and also create a right-now sense of character.

One is the inimitable Dorothy Dunnett, of course, that master of historical fiction. The device she uses most often to make her characters of their time, is to have them quoting obscure literary works. This evokes the world vividly, and the character as a thinking being interacting with the world. It also makes a character look highly intelligent, if they can use snippets out of context to convey their own meaning, with subtext woven out of a whole literary tradition.

Unfortunately, this method takes more research and knowledge than I will ever have patience for in my lifetime.

The other writer who I think does admirably is Catherine Jinks. Her Pagan series, set in the Middle East and Europe at the turn of the 12th century, is amazing for so many reasons. However, I will restrain myself and just talk about this particular aspect.

She uses a modern, expressive, punchy structure, but though her character’s voice sounds vibrant and loose, the word-choices are all period-appropriate. Pagan’s favourite curse is “Christ in a cream cheese sauce”. (Er, so I guess I don’t mean period-appropriate in that it was necessarily actually used, but that all the references/words/images are of their time.)

Both these methods are to be studied and aspired to.

Still, there’s one more angle to consider. The word fuck can be seen in writing from as early as the 16th century, but was considered unfit for print for hundreds of years. It has a history of being an expressive and naughty word.

So often when people say “that doesn’t seem historically accurate”, what they mean is,  “that’s not how they speak in BBC costume dramas”.