Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Why Historical Fiction

MK Tod of A Writer of History has a post up asking for takes on what makes historical fiction tick, and it seemed like a good conversation starter for a laid back Friday post. I'll address her questions in two blocks, leaving out the ones dealing with current trends in the genre as I don't feel that I've anything particularly insightful to say there.

1. What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable and irresistible?

2. In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

3. Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

I like to read novels set in other times and places (whether conscious "historicals" or novels actually written near the time and place they portray) because they allow you to see how the universal aspects of the human experience play out in a very different setting. Growing up, I was a huge fan on Science Fiction and Fantasy, in great part because those novels take you to new worlds. (And I still read some SF/F.) But as time went by I started to see the seams in some of the novels I was reading, and often it was along the lines of, "This is a novel about the Wars of the Roses, but with dragons and zombies added in." One of the ways that SF/F writers add realism to their worldbuilding is to mine the past and the world for real elements of culture, and then use those elements to build believable other-worlds. However, I often felt like it was the historical elements that were most interesting, an the fantastical elements where often simplifications or ways of inserting a more modern twist. That's when I turned to reading a lot more historical fiction, and it defines what I look for in a historical novel: an author who really gets into another time and place as another world and shows how real people just like us had very different impressions and faced very different decisions based on the times and places where they lived.

Drama is driven by conflict, and as humans in dramatic situations we end up having to make decisions. In that sense, the dramatic core of many stories is basically moral: Faced with this set of circumstances what should you do? And once a character makes that decision, good or bad, what kind of results will follow from it?

I think that dealing with these kind of dilemmas in a historical setting creates a lot more honesty and human interest because it causes you as a reader to thinking about problems as real people in the past thought about them, rather than with an outside-looking-in consciousness. For instance, there was a sort of social media ethical debate going around a little while back about "should you kill baby Hitler?" Do you kill a baby who is, so far, innocent, because you know that person will grow up to do horrible deeds? I think that's a false ethical dilemma, because it's a situation that real human people never face. You don't decide how to act towards other people from the position of having absolute knowledge of what they will later do and what will happen, you do so out of a position of ignorance. If someone actually knew Hitler as a child, they wouldn't know him as "Hitler" in the sense that we do looking back, they would only know his actions up to that point. And similarly, as people react to their historical surroundings, they do so without knowledge of how things work out.

For instance, there's a great moment in one of Alan Furst's novels (I think it was The Polish Officer, but it's been a number of years) where characters hear that France has declared war on Germany in 1939, and their reaction is relief. All right, France is in the war now. They'll never give in to Germany. It's going to be okay. To a world that remembered France's four year stand against Germany in 1914-1918, that makes total sense, but to us from our vantage point, it seems completely alien. It's necessary to get the reader into a world in which France is the great bulwark against Germany if you're going to be able to have the reader understand the kind of despair that people felt when France folded so quickly during the German invasion of 1940.

In addition to putting the reader into a period sense of history, in which we temporarily give up our knowledge of what's happened since, good historical fiction also puts the reader into the moral and cultural world of these characters: What's possible and impossible and why. One of the things that I found frustrating reading Ken Follet's Fall of Giants a while back is that all the characters you were supposed to like just happened to have modern ideas about women's rights and religion and workers rights and so on. I think it's a lot more interesting to make the reader grapple with a basically likable character who is still acting fully within the constraints of the time period. I read To Kill A Mockingbird for the first time during the fuss about the lately uncovered prior novel Lee wrote about the same characters, and it struck me that Atticus Finch in the original novel is a good example of this kind of writing. He has instincts that we like, towards fairness regardless of race, etc. but he has those instincts very much within the setting of his time. He doesn't envision a South that throws off Jim Crow; he operates within that world but tries to do so honestly towards all.

5. If you are an author, what aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

6. If you are an author, what research sources and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

As an author, you write what you want to read, so the above covers a lot of what I've tried to focus on while writing The Great War. At the opening, I wanted to give a strong sense of how the war interrupted lives that already had drama going on in them, so we have Walter's struggles with unionization at the factory, Henri and Philomene dealing with their marriage and with small town politics, Natalie arriving in Russia and both finding out about her origins and starting work as a governess, Jozef dealing with the duel, etc. The war isn't the only drama in these characters lives, but it does fundamentally redirect all their lives, ending some dramas while starting new ones.

I also set a kind of rule for myself that if there's something which is often dealt with from a very clear, backwards looking perspective, I wanted to make my characters deal with it from inside the constraints of the time. So, for instance, executions for desertion or cowardice among the British and French forces in WW1 are an absolute trope at this point. And so I decided that my characters would have to deal with a situation like that, but within a world in which that kind of extreme action seemed like it might be the only way to hold the army together.

For research I not only read a lot of history books about all aspects of the period, but also as many first hand accounts (letters, memoirs, etc.) as possible from the period. I've read a number of novels set in the period as well, but I've tried to stick almost exclusively to novels written either during the war or shortly thereafter (before World War 2) because what I want from a truly period novel is to get a sense of how people thought about those events then, now how they thought about them through the lens of later events.

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