Pitfalls and Strengths of Historical Fiction

By Sophia White

Time-travel, with or without the use of machines, has been a growing theme in fiction in the last century. It corresponds in many ways to a longing almost all of us have felt at one time or another: a longing to go back to another time, whether to escape the troubles that are pressing us now, or to enjoy a “simpler” life, or to experience history first-hand. But while actual time travel may not be a possibility in our lifetimes, books offer us the opportunity to travel to other worlds, and works of historical fiction offer a safe passage to time travel to former times. pitfallsandstrengthspost

Historical fiction is a story set in a real, past time and featuring some event or character that really was. A story that says “set during the American Civil War” but which makes no mention of the war, slavery, Conscription, major battles, or President Lincoln does not count –– it’s more like fantasy.

What makes historical fiction such a good genre to read (and to write)? One obvious advantage is the ability to learn history through the eyes, as it were, of contemporaries of the time in which the book is set (even if the point-of-view character is mostly fictional), without the bore of textbooks. One can learn all sorts of things in settings which make the knowledge seem crucial –– a teacher’s explanation that the weather was bad on a certain day in the early spring of 1064 probably sounds meaningless in class, but when one is reading a book set just before the Norman Conquest, the knowledge takes on importance to all of England.

History, when no longer a chore to be slogged through in a certain amount of time and quizzed on, becomes something interesting and fascinating, with endless rabbit trails to research and chase to their remote ends. Did you know that the Vikings sometimes ate whale, but not often, due to the danger involved in catching them? That carrots in eleventh-century England were purple, not orange? Or what happened to William and Matilda’s fourth daughter, or didn’t they have one after all? (Hint: the last one is still unanswered.)

If the author has done their research properly, their books may expose some common misconceptions. How many people have been told that in the Victorian Era, women often had ribs removed to make their waists smaller? How many have done enough research to learn that, due to the insufficient nature of surgical processes at that time, such a surgery was likely to be fatal; that even the lowest ribs, supposing they were successfully removed, would not make the waist any narrower, being too high up; that most women, being desirous of having children, would not only shudder at the concept of such a procedure, but were quite comfortable with wider waists than those of the (often exaggerated) fashion plates; and that corsets were actually quite comfortable, when properly fitted? One need not write an essay on the topic, only do one’s research and, in full possession of the facts, write it into the applicable part of the story in such a way as to leave the falsehood of that idea undoubted. (I see I am preaching to myself when I say one need not write an essay on the topic.)

The genre has a fairly small readership, which is a pity, but at the same time, much of what is billed as “historical fiction” hardly counts. We have too much “historical romance” which takes a loose framework from the culture of, say, the Regency or Victorian eras, and plants some feminist ideas; or heroes whose actions would, in the real society of the years chosen for setting, be seen as ungentlemanly at least, loose and worldly at worst, and forgets about any real historicity in manners, ideals, or social customs.

We have too much of the sort that is “loosely set in X time period” or “in such-and-such a country”, but which shows a complete lack of knowledge of the subject or setting or politics of the situation. I once began to read a book that was quite promising in plot and characterization, but it went sharply down in my estimation after it described a farmer’s daughter of the 12th century possessing a velvet gown. Velvet was not known in the West until the beginning of the 14th century, when it was so expensive (being made, at the time, of silk, and by a new process) that only royalty could afford it. Afterwards, sumptuary laws often restricted it to upper-class folk, though in any time sumptuary laws were rarely observed or enforced, and anyone with the means, by the 16th century, could have bought it. In fantasy, world-building is essential to a good story.

In historical fiction, knowing your world, and reflecting it rightly, is every bit as important.

Another thing we need less of is books (yes, that is proper subject-verb agreement, my dear Internal Editor) which claim to be “based on X’s life” but which actually make up more than what is known about such an historical figure, even to the point of contradicting known facts about the main character.

What we need to see more of is the real historical fiction: the stories that take real events, places, people, and situations for a frame of what could have happened given all those. For half the charm of historical fiction, to the writer at least if not to the reader as well, is the ability to tell the truth –– not necessarily only of what was –– but of what might have been. We need to see more stories and novels in the genre rich in the atmosphere of the time and place chosen; good plots that are plausible given the time and setting, but without inconsistencies (though not so heavy on the facts as to be a textbook in disguise).

Two examples of well-done historical fiction: Harold, Last of the Saxon Kings, by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton; and Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt.

It is easy to tell Bulwer-Lytton did plenty of research for Harold. The book has footnotes. It has enough research for a master’s thesis, easily; maybe enough for a doctoral dissertation, depending on how you reckon such things. The result is a deep, enthralling story of people –– real people. The main actors in the Norman Conquest of England are often portrayed as flat characters: Harold was right and William was wrong. The characters in Harold, from the highest to the low, are well-developed, well-rounded, and human. The main characters are necessarily somewhat larger than life, as befitting the actors in a conflict that changed the world, but still they are human. What makes it even more amazing is that the place and time have left rather scanty evidence (I have some knowledge of just how scanty it is, but that is another subject) for the small matters of culture and daily life which he knows so much about. The story devotes a good part to Harold’s inward struggles between his own will and promise and the will of the English people, who had elected him to the throne, as well to the political and spiritual tangles of the time. William was not entirely wrong, nor Harold entirely right, though for my part my sympathies lie with Harold.

Across Five Aprils shows the years of the American Civil War from the point of view of a boy from southern Illinois, who grows up during the war. It shows rather than tells the destruction and pain, even in victory, using details of everyday life in the southern part of the North. The language and word pictures draw out emotion and stay behind even after one has finished the book. Hunt used her knowledge of the Civil War era to do this.

The world needs more good historical fiction.

We Christians who are also writers stand in an advantageous place to write good books of all sorts –– why not add the fun (though I’d be the last to deny it can be frustrating) of research and a real setting to our work? What about exploring the Church as it has been in the past by means of this genre?

To finish with a quotation from a very good article on historical fiction, first published in 1922 (Opportunities in Historical Fiction, by Michael Williams, LL.D):

“Good historical fiction does what Charles Reade declares to be its mission, namely: it interprets the puzzles and mysteries of history, it interprets the human nature and the spiritual interests hidden behind the records of the past; it reveals the continuity of the ideals and the aspirations, the struggles and the arrows of humanity.”

KPpictureSophia White is a conservative Christian writer from the middle of nowhere in Minnesota. She was home-schooled until beginning college, and now she is finishing her second year as a Creative Writing major (and Philosophy minor) at a secular university. Apologetics, and twisting her brain around such strange questions as “Since the mind is separate from the brain, can we think without brains?” are a natural extension of her choice in education. She has been writing work of varying quality for more than half her life, and can now claim two completed first drafts of novels, one of which she wrote last year for her first NaNoWriMo. Historical fiction is quickly becoming her favorite genre to write in, if not necessarily to read. Getting involved with the SCA, a world-wide group that recreates medieval history, may or may not have helped speed up that process.

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  1. I’m writing a piece of historical fiction right now. I’m trying to keep it strictly to the time period, but due to the plot, it hasn’t had a whole lot of depth in historical facts and events, but I do have a brief account of the capture of two Spanish vessels by the privateer Jean Florin, some minor scenes from the nine years war, and some references to the glorious revolution though. These have been the easy matters of research actually. I’m having one or two stumbling blocks running up against some very obscure problems however. For instance, I have a character who is supposed to make an arrest of a man caught in an assassination attempt against the king. What I’m having trouble with is figuring out what official would receive this duty. It could very well a high up government official from the time I have never heard of, or it could very well be that the King just sent and order to the local authorities or some other possibility. To be fair, I haven’t given it a full study yet, but in cases where historical data seems to evade you, are there any research strategies you suggest to for pulling up facts that seem buried down at the bottom of the historical pile?

    • Sophia White says:

      I must admit I know barely anything about Jean Florin, the nine years’ war, or the glorious revolution (I think that was something to do with William and Mary?). Apart from the particular time period, with which I can’t help you, I can tell you what I do when something proves hard to research. The Internet can be a good place to find sources; a surprising amount of good things are hidden in it. But when even libraries fail, I generally end up saying something like, “If even the experts know so little about whatever-this-is that they can’t write anything helpful about it, I should be safe using my imagination in this case.” The records, archaeological, scribal, and other, from 11th-century England are somewhat scarce. We have many details about the important doings of the day, such as what happened around Edward the Confessor his deathbed, but not so much about the shape of the sleeves of the overgown of a middle-class woman. In those cases I’ve had to fiddle a bit.
      Re-enactors might be able to help you; often they know a lot about their time, especially the details of daily life. For any period in Western history between Rome and 1600, the SCA has many resources, and individual SCAdians who have dug deep into their particular times often know an awful lot (the Companions of the Laurel, for example, have been awarded for extraordinary knowledge of something in their time). I think what you’r doing is somewhat later, though?

  2. Awesome article, Sophia. My first two completed ‘novels’ were historical fiction… ugh. Even if I hadn’t been just starting out, they would have been terrible. I love reading historical fiction and hate writing it. The only thing I hate writing. 😛 To all you writers who have the patience to research these things, you have my undying admiration.
    And on a side note, William the Conqueror and King Harold are two of my absolute favorite historical figures to read about. That era… 1066 has to be my favorite era. And though I don’t think I’ve done as much research on the subject as you seem to have, my sympathies definitely lie with Harold, though I will admit he made plenty of mistakes. 😉

    • Sophia White says:

      The first novella I ever wrote was supposedly historical fiction. Ugh is right. I didn’t know how horrible it was until I actually did some research a year later, for another story. Nobody’s ever going to see that one.
      The middle of the eleventh century is an absolutely fascinating era. I knew next to nothing about it when I got into the SCA, but once I decided that was when my persona would have lived, and started doing research, it got hard to stop. Such a complicated time, with all that was going on in Church and State. Bishop Odo of Bayeux (famous for the Bayeux “Tapestry” was mixed up in them almost as deeply as his half-brother William.
      I just finished reading a good biography of the Conqueror: William the Conqueror, by George Slocombe. Our library was getting rid of it and my mother picked it up for me. It’s old-ish, but it might still be available somewhere, if you want to read the other side :).
      Hurrah for Harold’s men!

  3. This is such a great article!

    I completely agree with you, most of what it’s labelled as historical is actually something else in disguise. I write stories set in the 1920s and even if my stories are actually speculative, being truthful to the time periode is very important to me. I have discovered long ago that being faithful to history makes a story so much more original and so much more unexpected.

    I’ve read many ‘historical’ novels that, in the effort of being politically correct (and this is the curse of all historical novels) go completely inaccurate, especially on a social level. I’m the kind of author who write historicals without using any historical figures. I like to research and depict common people’s lives… and that’s were politically correctness may do the wideser damages if we are not carefull. I firmely believe that we can be accurate and not offend anyone. Takes a bit of effort, sure, but it’s so worth it.

    Another thing that really buffles me is an habit that a friend of mine pointed out to me somethimes back. She writes speculative stories in a very historically accurate Middle Ages, and I know she’s done lots of research for that. She told me once that readers are so accustomed to see some things depicted in an inaccurate way, that when they see the accurate version, they think that’s fake. Which is quite disheartening, really..

    Still I think being accurate is always, always worth it, not just for the reader, but for the writer as well. Thanks so much for such great article!

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