the challenges of historical fiction

I had fun last week interviewing Jordan! Thanks for the questions you submitted and the great feedback you gave me afterwards. If you send more questions, I’d be happy to do a part two (and Jordan will do it whether he’s happy about it or not), so if there’s anything else you want to know about Jordan, please let me know in the comments below or via your favorite method of getting in touch with me.

This week’s topic was suggested by reader Robert Stiles, a prolific writer and a YouTuber at Channel Legendarium, where he explores a variety of historical, literary, and mythological topics. Robert, who’s been doing some research for a new historical fiction work, suggested that I write about the challenges historical fiction writers face. He said, “Stanley Kubrick noted that you have to inform your audience about the period enough to get the story, while still telling a story first and foremost.” (By the way, Robert, if you know the source of that statement, could you let me know? I didn’t come across it in my highly detailed [not] research, which consisted of googling “Stanley Kubrick historical fiction.”)

Although my enjoyment of historical fiction goes all the way back to my early elementary school years, when I had the American Girls catalog memorized, I have never attempted writing in this genre myself. (Exception: A short story called “The Considerate General” that I hand-wrote around third grade, at the peak of my childhood Civil War obsession.) In fact, you probably couldn’t pay me to touch it. There’s no way I’m opening myself up to the criticism of fans who really know their medieval weapons or Regency fashions and who won’t hesitate to call out a mistake on Goodreads. Astute readers of historical fiction can catch anachronisms much more subtle than the standard example I give my students–a cell phone in a Shakespeare play. Here’s the thing: I don’t have the discipline to do the research it would take to write a quality work of historical fiction. But I do teach a class on research for creative writing, and I’ve found (well, I knew this before developing the class, but the class has confirmed it) that historical fiction is probably the most research-heavy fictional genre, with only sci-fi giving it a run for its money.

Brief digression: This is not to say that other genres don’t require research. The whole point of my class is that creative writing never just comes out of the writer’s head. For Sam’s Town, a contemporary novel about an improbable event that nobody, to date, can fact-check (the zombie apocalypse), I still had to do research on everything from broken legs to the Ohio Turnpike. I also wanted my novel to fit into one specific strain of zombie apocalypse lore, so I had to research the rules of that body of lore.

So one of the risks of writing historical fiction is that you won’t do enough research and your readers will expose you as a screwup. (I’m only slightly exaggerating.) But the equal and opposite risk is that you’ll get so bogged down in your research and your world-building (what would you call this in historical fiction? world-recreating? world-evoking?) that you’ll forget you’re actually writing a story. I see this often with my students in the class I mentioned, especially those who choose to write historical and science fiction (or both–I currently have a student who’s researching for a project that involves both time travel and the Black Death). Their proposals are full of excitement about the research they’re going to do, but when I ask them what’s going to happen in the story, they’re at a loss. Or they end up turning in a thinly-veiled research paper, in which all the dialogue consists of characters reporting the author’s findings. I hope this doesn’t come across as mean-spirited toward my students; they have only four weeks to pull off the daunting task I’m asking them to do. And many of them do it quite well. But that risk is always there.

If you’ve written historical fiction, what were some of the challenges you faced? Next week, I might look at this topic from a reader’s perspective, so if you’re a reader of historical fiction, let me know some of your favorite books and authors, as well as some of your pet peeves.

2 thoughts on “the challenges of historical fiction

  1. Kandy Crosby-Hastings says:

    My historical fiction project (it stated out a novel and now has developed into a novel series) is what pushed me into historical research that found its way into several research papers for my MA in history and small papers and my thesis for my MA in professional writing. I started my novel just before I started the MA in history. It worked out perfectly. I still research.

    My greatest challenge is the feeling that I have to hurry and get it done. I have to remind myself I do not. I adore researching and writing. Both are relaxing for me. I have to be sure I do not get stuck in the mindset of “This has to be done right now. Work harder.” I want it to remain an enjoyable experience.

    Because I do both fiction and nonfiction writing, I can bounce back and forth between my fiction world and my nonfiction research/writing, and also I jump between the novels I am writing. I may work on a nonfiction project for a few days and then work on a scene for novel number one. The next week, I may jump into a scene for novel two or three. It works for me.

  2. […] Last week’s post on the challenges of writing historical fiction garnered more copious feedback than my posts typically do, including a book recommendation from my uncle; some thoughts on the benefits and challenges of research from my former student Kandy Crosby-Hastings, a historical fiction writer herself (read her savvy observations in the comments to last week’s post), and some comments from my dad, which I’ll return to shortly. I also received a nuanced response and respectful critique from another former student and my occasional Twitter interlocutor (occasional because I’m really bad at Twitter), @Andy__Ford, and it is his epic series of ten tweets that I would like to spend most of my post engaging with today. And that’s because I realized, after reading his comments, that my previous post presented an unfairly generalized portrayal of historical fiction readers. Today, I’d like to complicate that portrayal a bit. […]

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