Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Historical fiction: Brain food!

Okay, so, my budding historical fiction author, here's the tally.

You've got an infinite amount of research to do.  You've got an equal amount of editing to do.  You need to find first readers, subject matter experts, multiple sources for your research, and adequate time for eating and sleeping.  You've got to embed small but relevant details into your story without making them stand out from the manuscript as sign posts declaring "Proof I did my research!"

Then, you have to prepare yourself for the inevitable and vitriolic critics - those who know what they're talking about, and those who don't.

And on top of all that, you've got to find / create an intriguing, new and unique story line!  With lifelike characters, and with good pacing and suspense and...and good grammar!  And spelling!

Writing a story is hard enough when you're setting it in modern times!  Why add the extra layer of complexity by throwing us back into a time that may predate the author's own life?  What's the draw?

1)  Escapism.  If I'm reading a book, it's because I don't want to be on Facebook or watching the news or responding to email.  I want to get away from today.  Reading historical fiction not only takes me out of my life, but it takes me out of my world.  There's something charming about putting down your blackberry and picking up a book about a monk in his peaceful monastery garden, solving murder mysteries with plants and poisons...

2)  Perspective.  Depending on the story, it also helps to remind me that yeah, times may have been simpler back then, but they were a whole lot harder.  I would not be able to survive September (such as it's been) if I also had to deal with a coffee and sugar ration.

3)  Challenge.  In the first post of this mini-series, I'd compared historical fiction to writing with one arm tied behind your chair and your tongue tied behind your head.  But the "wows" are worth it.  If you're lucky enough to hand your book to someone who lived in that era and see them nod and remember aloud what you're describing, then every awful minute of research and editing has been worth it.  And besides, when later you write something set in the present, it's like taking off your handicap weights and soaring!  Imagine writing about stuff you don't have to research so thoroughly!

4)  Fascination.  Enough said.  Readers and writers of historical fiction have an existing fascination with a certain epoch because that era, simply said, is intriguing and exciting. And sometimes it's funny!

5)  Specialization and niche carving.  Few people write about Canada in World War II - not Canada's participation in the war overseas, but about Canada itself during the '40s - the people who were left behind.  There are truckloads of people who write about it, yes, but fewer than people who write about...say...vampires in 20th/21st century USA.  The field of competition is smaller (though just as fierce).  And name me one other person who writes about women butchers and murders among nuns in 16th century England.

To be honest, this can also work for and against you.  Specialized writers can mean specialized (read, small) audiences.  Large publishing houses want mass appeal because they survive on mass sales; smaller publishing houses are sometimes more willing to take a chance.  Be patient, and make your work so appealing even the stuffiest of editors wants to buy it.

6)  Continuing education.  Writing about somebody else in some other time and place is an intellectual exercise that involves as much learning as writing.  I have to research the time and place.  I have to research flora, fauna, geography, political allegiances, food and drink, fashion, courtship rituals and religion - I have to become a total anthropologist.  And thanks to your local public library (and the internet), you can save yourself tuition fees!

The mental exercise of seeking, assimilating, manipulating and remembering new information seems to help stave off mental health problems later in life, like dementia, or even Alzheimers.

7)  Certain historical periods resonate with personal history.  I grew up in a somewhat disadvantaged household; I never went hungry or without a roof over my head, but I couldn't go out on most field trips, or wear fashionable clothes, or play with all the fancy toys everybody else had.  From a very early age, I understood that painstakingly careful money management makes the difference between food and no food.

I looked at the Haves and Have Nots from the same perspective as someone who grew up during the Great Depression.

And then I joined the Army and learned about war.

My experience mirrors what may have been experienced during those decades, and some of the common ethics of those days (work ethic, sense of honour and decorum, faith) echo what I believe today.

Later, I discovered the fashion and style of the '30s and '40s - and liked it.  Later still, I discovered radio plays - and loved them!  In the late 2000s, I discovered swing (music and dance) - now I'm taking classes and playing Gene Krupa tracks day and night.

Discovering all the bad things that happened during the '30s and '40s (discrimination, Allied internment camps, sexism, recession and unemployment) only increased my fascination with that era.

It only made sense that I would write about those two decades.

But why I write about a female butcher in 16th century England however...not sure.  Even more of a challenge, I guess.  Maybe it's because Lady Butcher reminds me of Rosie the Riveter.

8)  History is fixed, more or less.  Unlike cell phone technology.

All technology has a life cycle:
A) new, extremely cool and prohibitively expensive,
B) cool and accessible to the military,
C) marketable to business and the consumer,
D) outdated, E) gauche!
F) retro, G) antique,
H), old, extremely cool and prohibitively expensive.

Think of iPad technology.  When you conceived your story, the iPad may still have been so new it was almost mythical.  By the time you finished writing your story, you could spend less than an hour in the Apple store to buy one.  By the time the story is edited and put to press, the iPad 2 is already cooling on the market.  By the time your book is published, Apple will have created something utterly unlike the iPad.

Almost ten years ago, I sat in a training class for work.  We were asked to design the awesomest cell phone possible.  My colleagues and I came up with a phone that could act as a fax, news source, bank machine, barcode scanner and bottle opener; you could even check the stock in your fridge while sitting on the train, and order groceries to be delivered in time for you to arrive at home.  Now, all I can say is, "There's an app for that."

Walk with me through 12 years of Blackberry history to get an idea of how quickly modern technology in your story will be outmoded (and kinda laughed at).

1999.  Blackberry 2-way Pager.  Aww...so cute...
2000.  Blackberry 957 PDA (Do you even remember what PDA stands for?).  You can check your emails on it.  Sometimes.  So long as it has no attachments.
2003.  Blackberry 6750.  Now with telephony! 

2007.  Blackberry 8100 "Pearl".  Bluetooth technology, and a 2 MP camera.
2010.  Blackberry Playbook.  Multi media, high speed internet access across cell towers, front and rear 3.2 MP cameras, and video fricking conferencing.  Currently does not walk the dog or fold laundry.  No wonder the iPad is selling better!

Darn it, I can't keep up with the Joneses anymore.  Let them run on ahead for a while.  

We live in the science fiction age; it used to be you could make up any technology (interplanetary travel, atomic fusion, energy pulse weapons...invisibility cloaks...the iPad) and know that it didn't exist.  Now, you actually have to research whether or not your idea has already been implemented in today's scientific research and development!  And anything that is new and modern today is outmoded and laughed at two years from now.  When was the last time a flip phone was cool?

I know that my 1935 Underwood Portable typewriter is already retro - almost antique - so I don't have to worry about my technology going out of style.

9)  Because it's what I do.  I've dabbled in fantasy, science fiction, gothic, horror, contemporary crime fiction, stage plays...poetry...everything but westerns and romance.  But this year, during the Muskoka Novel Marathon 2011, I won not only the Most Prolific Award (third year in a row!), but I was humbled to receive the award for Best Novel in the Adult category.  I'd managed to write a murder mystery set in a time period I'd known nothing about prior to this summer, and I'd done it well.  I'm officially hooked on historical crime fiction, because to date, it's what I've done best.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go finish two books as quickly as possible and send them out - Mummer's the Word (set in 1944) and Lady Butcher and the Accidental Saint (set in 1538).

Kindly pass the tape.


  1. I love reading your posts. As a CCA, I also have one item to add to your ''why write a historical fiction'': if, by chance, you did happen to develop some form of dementia, think of what an interesting person you would be to take care of with all your stories of living through the great depression, and the war. You've done so much research, you'll probably actually have real memories of living in that time period, and everybody will wonder, ''how is this possible?''!! You'll be the coolest old person in the home! (assuming they haven't upgraded us all to retirement space shuttles by then!)
    Julie N

  2. Ha! I hadn't thought of that! Maybe in a couple of decades, you'll be my CCA, and I can entertain you in person! Except...well, you'd know I was making it up, wouldn't you? :D