Historical Fiction: Playing in the Sandbox

A few weeks ago on a writing website, someone asked a question that went like this:

“I want to write a historical novel for my first novel ever and I don’t know what era I should use so tell me!”

soapboxThis is one of those times I gently banged my head against my desk and refrained from responding. Because this goes back to my biggest pet peeve. Soapbox time again: you don’t become a writer by saying “I want to be a writer” and then begging for ideas. You become a writer by writing.

Historical writing is so close to my heart, as a historian. My first attempts at novels were fantasy, with a heavy dose of medieval history; later efforts revolved around the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most of my ideas, truth be told, are based in history — even my urban fantasy series is steeped in several layers of history going back 500+ years. That’s a lot of research! And it bothers me so much when someone says, “I don’t know what era to write in.” Um — how do you NOT know?

As I’ve said before, Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite authors, for a multitude of reasons. (Her ability to write really hot sex scenes is just part of it. Really.). Here’s one of her interviews, where she talked about how she came to have the idea for Outlander:  http://januarymagazine.com/profiles/gabaldon.html

Yup. I realize she broke all the rules. Still does. But the point is, she chose a time period herself. Thinking like a writer, she took inspiration from the things around her (Yes, I call Doctor Who an inspiration!), and then proceeded to draft things. She thought about sources of conflict. That’s where Claire Randall came in. And like a good writer, when Claire began to take over the story and boss it around, Diana let her.

History’s a funny thing. It won’t let you get away with much. It’s a sandbox with definite boundaries. And yet, once you start to work within its limits, it seems to expand and grow. Your sandbox becomes infinite. Take Nicky, for example. I had become 100% focused on his run-ins with the local Klan. But as dug into the newspapers for 1924, I learned that there was an entire bootlegging empire in this region. Not only were they bootlegging, they were stealing cars and chickens and even hijacking people on the streets and stealing their valuables! And I knew immediately that Nicky would never, ever get involved in that — but what another level of complexity and conflict for the novel! By playing within the confines of my historical sandbox, I was given a broad base, which may allow me to expand this from one novel into at least two, and maybe a trilogy.

So no. I don’t understand the whole “I want to write a historical but I don’t know when to set it” question. Because to anyone who does historical research, we know that the history will dictate what you can and cannot do.

So here’s a few things to keep in mind, from a historian’s point of view, if you want to do historical fiction:

1.) The characters and your era have to work together. One will inform the other. If they don’t, you’re screwed. I believe Claire and Jamie were always there in Diana Gabaldon’s head, just waiting to get out; it just took her finding the right time period first! When Nicky came to me, there was no doubt he was from the 1920s. The two almost always arrive together.

2.) Your characters have to work within societal norms — or be very aware of the price if they don’t. If your character wants to break the rules of society, you’d better give her a good reason, and a good cover. Let’s say you’ve got a 14-year old girl who wants to attend University of Paris in the 1400s, for example. She’ll have to cut her hair. Behave like one of the boys. Lots of conflict there! This is where so much conflict comes in for Nicky; he knows the rules. He just chooses to ignore them. But he also knows the price he’s going to pay if he ever gets caught.

This is one thing that bothers me so much about Ariana Franklin’s books. While painstakingly researched, her main character, Adelia, consistently acts outside the societal norms — in fact, she acts quite a lot too much like a 20th century woman. It really takes me out of the story; the historian in me keeps saying But she’d have been burned as a witch already!

3.) Research, research, research. Read every book you can get your hands on about that era. Your character’s field of work. Horses. Whatever you need to research, do it. Somewhere out there are experts in your field. Find them. Or I promise, once you publish, they will find you. 🙂 Even if you are 99.9% sure you know what x and y are, double-check everything. Triple-check. I have to find out if you can, in fact, drop a 1917 V-8 Cadillac engine into a 1916 Model T. I’m sure hoping so. If you’re lucky enough to be working within the past 150 years or so, read newspapers from that time period. Get a feel for the language and politics and fashions and rules.

4.) There is some room for play. But not much. We often talk about “poetic license” and “taking liberties.” But you have a contract with your reader. If you’re telling them this is a straight-up historical, that’s what they’re expecting. Take one step out of bounds, and you’ll never hear the end of it. If you choose to write alternative history, or a time-travel novel, then your reader will expect you to take a few liberties. For Nicky, I’ll be taking a handful of liberties; I already know that. But the liberties I plan to take all make sense within the confines of the 1920s. Never give your characters an easy way out. By playing within the sandbox of your era, you make sure their conflicts, and their risks, are genuine.

So if you’ve ever thought about writing a historical novel, keep these things in mind. People who read historical fiction are a unique group; they’re often historians or “amateur historians” themselves (I put that in quotes only because the “amateur” historian often has more knowledge of a particular subject than a trained, degreed historian!), and they will rip you apart if you get one thing wrong, like underwear.

So go find your sandbox. It might look small now. But I promise, once you start to research and write, you’ll look up one day and realize that sandbox has no limits.

8 thoughts on “Historical Fiction: Playing in the Sandbox

  1. I’m always amazed when people ask that question, especially if applied to Hist Fic. Of course you choose whichever era jumps out at you, not ask people which one you should use. One of my Historical Fantasy ideas takes place during the Rev War, and one of my straight Hist Fic takes places during the late 19th century in Boston. Why? Because I enjoy the 18th and 19th centuries as a whole, it’s only natural I use such periods in history whether for Hist Fic or some form of Fantasy.

    • I know! I couldn’t believe it when I saw that question pop up. I suppose I should really be applauding and saying “Great job! Glad you want to write!” But I just can’t. It’s just so lazy to ask others these kinds of questions!

      • The laziness isn’t so bothersome for me as the lack of drive, because drive is what will get the book done in the first place. Or the novella, or that short story etc. Without knowing what you want, how do you hope to know how to get it? To know one without any idea of the other isn’t logical, or helpfull.

        And honestly? Certain genres and subgenres like Epic Fantasy, Alternate History, Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy etc., they’re extremely work intensive in the research department when done right. They require a lot of work, where as something that is straight up contemporary may only require intensive research in one or a few aspects instead of everything. Unless it is of course set in India or Saudia Arabia and the person writing knows next to nothing about those places. In general though? Just slightly less intensive research wise.

    • Food, education, what books would have been available for education and leisure purposes, what type of war tactics were used etc. And because I’m me, slaves and freed slaves fighting on the side of the Patriots. Lots of work to be worrying about, lots of research to be done. If it is a Historical Fantasy instead of straight up Historical, there are some allowances, a fraction of a hairs less research done and such. But that also depends on the type of Historical Fantasy it is. Is it more Fantasy based or is it the Rev War with my MC being a Vampire, and hence essentially the same besides vampires existing and being used by one or both sides?

      And you know, Fantasy gets a needlessly bad rap in Hist Fic circle. For that matter, so does Science Fiction and historically set Horror. I’m a lover of them all, and I can honestly say that there’s no appreciable difference between the amount of research needed for a really well done story in any of those genres. I mean, whether Hist. Fic or Fantasy, if your MC is say… we’ll go with silversmith or blacksmith. If they’re one of those you’ll have to research those things, just so you can get the beginning right regardless of if they somehow rise to greatness later. And if said MC is female and you’re writing a straight historical, you need to know if a female blacksmith was possible for the time and place you’re working with.

      • Oh gosh, no, no difference at all in how much research has to go into them! The science fiction has to be based in science — and those fans will hunt you down if you mess it up! And if you’re basing your fantasy in history, or an alternative-history type setting, then absolutely, you have to be able to do that. One of my favorite series is the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik. The amount of historical research she had to do in order to plausibly drop dragons into the middle of the Napoleonic Wars is astounding. And the different dragons! She created an entire culture based on their existence — but rooted in the real Napoleonic-era social construct.

  2. Great post. My best advice is to write about what interests you. As you say, done right, HF requires a great deal of research. So if you aren’t fascinated with the time period you have selected you could be in for a rather dreary undertaking.

    • Absolutely! That should actually be #1 on my list — I tend to find everything fascinating, though, so I also tend to forget that one. But it is true. If you’re working in a time period that isn’t interesting to you, why pursue it, if you don’t have to? I personally wouldn’t set a story in the `1970s, for example — but I can’t really think of another time period in which I can’t find something interesting to write about!

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