Alice Soon

My Literary Life & other obsessions…

Is historical fiction more challenging to write than contemporary fiction?

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As a writer and ferocious reader of historical fiction, I almost sometimes forget how different it is than contemporary fiction.  (That’s not the say I don’t read contemporary fiction; I just prefer a historical context.)

CASE & POINT: I started working on a Prologue to my second novel (at this point, all storylines & characters are merely a haze of spindly cobwebs in my head), but I figured I would start writing it anyway, since WRITERS WRITE.

Then, as I started to compose my 1 page, 250-word Prologue, I became startled when I had to halt sentence after sentence…to fact check.  Wait, what kind of clothes did they wear?  How cold is it? Would they wear rabbit fur gloves or shearling lambskin gloves?  What type of hat did they wear during that time period?  What kind of food did they eat in that region of Europe?  What did they drink??? The questions are potentially endless…

I stopped in dismay as I thought to myself, “This is ruining my narrative! I can’t even get my poor character to advance the action forward, or do anything, because he was being curtailed at every turn – by the checking of historical facts!”

As Christopher Isherwood said to Gore Vidal:

“How could you write about anything without wondering if it was true? I mean, you’d be describing a bird in a garden and suddenly there would be that awful question in your mind, did they have birds in the fourth century?” (Harpers, 1965)

It appeared that I had conveniently forgotten the piles of books and Internet resources I had consulted when I wrote my first book.  (Set in Malaya & Britain in 1909)  I had been out of the research phase for at least more than a year now, so getting back into it with this 2nd novel was kind of…a shock???  But it’s something I had done before, so it was like putting on an old pair of stilettos with 4 inch heels – I just had to get used to it again.

Yet, even as I bemoan the process of researching, it is also precisely the reason why I LOVE historical fiction so much.  It’s the fine details of setting and of culture; the ability to learn a new fact about a specific instance in history; how people lived at that time and how they interacted with one another, etc…Yes, I realize part of the deal with the “fiction” equation is that some parts of the book must be MADE UP, but that is the risk I’m willing to take as the reader.  In fact, that is whole FUN of it! (Making things up as you go along…) Many historical writers frequently change timelines or extrapolate/insert their characters at the wrong place & time, but they do it on purpose, to suit their narrative.

That being said, one of my absolute pet peeves about some historical fiction is what I call the proverbial “INFO-DUMPING”.  This is where the author feels he or she must let us know precisely how much research they have done and proceed to dump every useless fact, date, location into their story.  Even if that fact is completely irrelevant to the novel.  This happens all the time! It drives me stark-raving mad!!

So as a writer of such work, I try very hard to weave the facts seamlessly into the story, like a soothing lullaby and you don’t even notice it’s there… 🙂

I’m also not saying that writing contemporary fiction is not difficult.  Writing any sort of novel is a monumental achievement.  But in my opinion, I will say that writing historical fiction poses a different set of challenges, merely because facts & events have to be referenced, every object placed has to make sense, even if it’s to create a semblance of a realistic fictitious world.

This will obviously differ by subject matter & time period.  Maybe someone writing a novel about nuclear weapons would have a ton of scientific and political research to do, but I would venture to say a novel about a family living in a small town in North America during the 2000’s who is struggling to get by would require less research.

Of course, in any sort of novel, there is still a gargantuan amount of work that must go into the mechanics: crafting your voice, unveiling the theme, generating plot, creating the characters, fine-tuning the dialogue, developing a setting, etc…And these all must be present regardless of the genre.

All I’m just saying is that in historical fiction, the writer, in most instances, has to do more.  He or she cannot take anything for granted.  In historical fiction, the details MATTER.

Which is why I currently have 37 books checked out from the library… 🙂

HAPPY WRITING!

*NOTE* All posts published are the sole opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of any other associations, organizations, or companies the author may be affiliated with.

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2 thoughts on “Is historical fiction more challenging to write than contemporary fiction?

  1. I started off writing historical fiction (still do from time to time), and had similar questions. My issue was with the obstacles that were presented by working within a rigid historical framework, and I refuse absolutely to take liberties with what actually happened just to make a story a little more engaging. Mainly an issue if significant events appear in the context of the story, but that doesn’t take away the need for research in order to ensure a credible sense of time and place on a more microcosmic level.

    To get to the point though, I completely agree with you that the level of research for historical fiction can be pretty daunting, but I do think the same could be said for any setting that a writer is very unfamiliar with.

    On a personal note, I made a sideways step to fantasy, so I can make it all up myself now! Good luck with the research though, 37 books should keep you busy for a while!

    • Hi Duncan,
      Yes, I certainly agree…I like travelling as well…If I can actually GO to where my novel takes place, it seems to help me with the writing quite a bit…It just tends to get expensive and hard to get time off…
      I don’t read or write a lot of fantasy, but can imagine it’s tough to get all the details straight, even if you’ve created the world yourself! Hahaha…But what a fun world it can be, like LOTR or Harry Potter!
      Thanks and good luck with your writing,
      Alice

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