Historical fiction: what is it and why should you write it?

Historical fiction
Henry and his wives: historical romance or historical horror?
If you have read my blog post on genre, you will be aware that I don’t necessarily consider historical fiction to be a genre in its own right. I view it more as a setting, a complement to the story and the characters. Despite this, Mamacona does have a historical setting and so the tag “historical fiction” is one I can’t really hide from.

But what does it mean? What makes writing historical fiction different to writing, say, contemporary crime or near-future romance? And why have I chosen a historical setting for my introduction to the world of novel writing?

This is my first blog post in quite a while (and so it is a long one!). Real life has an annoying habit of carrying on, even when all I truly want to do is power through my editing as quickly as possible and start querying agents. Over the past few months, real life has been conspiring to wrestle my attention away from my book, my blog and my self-editing course. Sadly, my blog has been the loser, hence the lack of recent posts. On the bright side, my course has provided plenty of fodder for future musings.

The self-editing course didn’t expressly cover genre, but it did get me thinking about the nature of my book and why setting it in the past was a natural choice for me. I go into the many and varied reasons for this below, but first…

What is historical fiction?

To paraphrase this description from goodreads.com, historical fiction is fiction set in the past, in which the time period is an important feature of the story. It matters not whether the characters are kings and queens, well-known villains or entirely made-up ordinary people. Important battles and other dates that we are all encouraged to remember as schoolchildren might be significant to the plot, a mere backdrop to the setting or not mentioned at all. Where they are mentioned though, they shouldn’t deviate substantially from what actually happened.

And that’s it. Outside of the above, historical fiction can be whatever you want to make it – creepy, romantic, gloomy, laugh-a-minute, or any combination of those things. This, to me, is the reason I don’t consider it a genre in and of itself. “Historical fiction” can’t possibly communicate the differences between a Bernard Cornwell novel and one by Philippa Gregory. Yes, the fact that a book is set in the past interests me, but which time period? And more importantly, what happens? What are the characters like? How will it make me feel? I prefer to use “historical” in conjunction with another label. Historical romance, historical thriller or historical crime tells a prospective reader far more about what they can expect if they begin to turn the pages.

I mention above that, in historical fiction, story events usually shouldn’t deviate too much from actual events. So what if yours do? What if, for example, the wheel was never invented or World War II went on for 15 years? That’s fine, but your book then falls into the category of “alternate history” or, more generally, “speculative fiction”.

The description from goodreads also states that historical fiction, in addition to adhering to the path of history, should obey the laws of physics. Mamacona doesn’t, not entirely. Strange things happen, inexplicable things. Historical fantasy might, therefore, be an appropriate description of my book.

But why did I choose to write a book that fits this description?

Why historical fiction?

  • I love both storytelling and playing with words. When it comes to the former, my absolute favourite thing about it is using my imagination, pretending to be someone vastly different from me in order to come up with a story. This generally means inventing a character from somewhere very unlike Britain, from a bygone era or from a different world entirely. Now that I think about it, most of my story ideas involve one of the three. To me, it isn’t the historical setting per se that I find exciting, but the challenge of writing about something I know very little about to start with. So it is fortunate that…
  • I love to research. I think the amount of reading and note-taking required to write a story set historically would be off-putting if it wasn’t something you enjoyed. But I love the weird and wonderful facts I have come across in the course of my research. In fact, part of the reason I chose the Inca Empire as one of my settings was that it was a time period I wanted to learn more about. The whole process can be very involving – from initial ideas, via museum visits and photography collections, to last minute fact-checking. I now know how efficient the 1880s South American rail network was, how to make a bottle of nine oils and what the Incas used to wash their hair (urine, in case you were wondering).
  • I would probably say this no matter which genre I was writing in, but it’s a great excuse for a trip (all in the name of research, obviously). I still want to make it to Peru (particularly to Lake Titicaca, the setting for Mamacona), but in the meantime, I have ventured to the circus to research the later portion of my book, and to various museums. Having said that, if you keep your eyes open, inspiration for potential historical stories really is all around us – on a recent visit to Tintern Abbey, I decided I wanted to write a story about ancient monks and the devil…
  • I really enjoyed primary school history. My enthusiasm waned as time went on because we stopped learning about the everyday lives of ordinary people and started learning about politics and military timelines. I continued to miss the Tudor banquet menus and Roman bath layouts of old, but now I get to write about precisely this type of thing as much as I want to (my stories tend towards the “entirely made-up ordinary people” rather than the kings and queens and well-known villains).

But as enjoyable as writing historical fiction is, it isn’t completely free of problems.

So, what are the difficulties?

  • Naturally, writing a fictional story involves making things up even where the setting is a real historical period – some things we just don’t know, and sometimes the truth simply isn’t that interesting. Received wisdom is that the truth should be adhered to in the case of significant events. But just how far can you deviate from the truth in other cases? Can you make up locations and invent recipes? I read an interesting blog post (that I now can’t locate) written by somebody who was both a historian and a novelist – they were very much of the opinion that the story comes first, and I am inclined to agree. It should be clear to readers that you are not writing an educational tome and so you would hope that nobody would attempt to use your book to revise for GCSE History. The setting should add to the richness of your story, not act as a distraction or an impediment to taking the plot where you want it to go. And if all else fails, and you absolutely HAVE to have Queen Victoria living to the age of 203, then there is always speculative fiction…
  • Despite this, I still have doubts about how I have interpreted the Inca Empire and its people. I regularly ask myself, “What would an expert think?!” and have visions of them slapping their tummies in mirth at my description of the Festival of the Moon or the potato-drying process. My feelings are compounded by the fact that the Inca Empire is rather difficult to research due to the relative lack of primary written accounts. I recall spending a disproportionately large amount of time trying to find out what precisely filled Inca doorways and how they were secured against intruders. Quechua, the Andean language of old, is another problem – I want to use the odd phrase in my book, but it is not widely spoken nowadays, at least not among people I can access easily. You can trust online dictionaries to a point, but I think only to a very small point. So if anybody out there is an expert on Quechua (or Inca doorways!) then please feel free to get in touch.
  • Should you choose to incorporate real events, what is the best way to do this? My book alludes to a few of these rather than mentioning them explicitly. The smallpox epidemic is hinted at, as is the incursion of the Spanish invaders. These events are not important elements in my story, but readers with a knowledge of South American history might notice the date of 1526 and realise my book is set at the brink of the Empire’s demise. I have opted for a combination of matter-of-factness and poignancy in my treatment of these events – other writers might choose to play the events up a little more or make them more central to the story.
  • How “authentically old-fashioned” should speech be? Too much and you might alienate and annoy the reader, not enough and the dialogue might not seem authentic. I have looked up the origin of many a commonly uttered phrase to check whether it was in use at the time in which my book is set. My approach has been to keep the speech relatively familiar, with just a hint of “otherness”. This is obviously much easier in the case of the Victorian chapters of my book, as I have no idea how native Peruvians spoke in the 16th century…

No doubt I will come across countless more problems as I work through the editing process. I have a little notebook (kept safely next to my bed in case inspiration strikes at 3am) filled with things (potential plot inconsistencies and historical facts) I need to double check, and the prospect of opening it up is pretty daunting. I suppose I just need to keep in mind the following quote from Tolstoy:

“A historian and an artist, describing a historical epoch, have two completely different objects. As a historian would be wrong if he should try to present a historical figure in all his entirety, in all the complexity of his relations to all sides of life, so an artist would not fulfil his task by always presenting a figure in his historical significance.”