Monday, October 15, 2012
Writing Historical Fiction - Bringing The Past To Life
To say I tend to have a habit of collecting people from long ago would be an understatement. I do love art, but they represent something so much more to me. A connection to the past, to actual people of another time who were just as loved and vital in their world as you and me are to our friends and family today. No one wants to be forgotten.
Very often a writer will use the photograph of an actor or model for inspiration of a character in their book. We then ask ourselves all sorts of questions about that person -- their past, their strengths and weaknesses, the way they walk and talk, and even the way they think and what their hopes are in life. We want them to become so real to the reader that they will almost jump off the page and become unforgettable. In essence, a writer uses words to capture a character on paper much the way that an artist does with paint on canvas. Whether the audience of that work is reading a book of fiction or looking at a painting of a real person from long ago -- they both can not only captivate your attention but your heart.
What these two portraits also have in common is the fact they are from another time long ago. They are, in fact, historical figures (no matter if they were famous or not), and by their existence helped form the tapestry of humanity to which we all belong. So many lives touch one another, in ways we don't always understand or appreciate at the time. And it never ceases to amaze me how much we can learn about life and ourselves by studying the past.
As a writer of historical fiction, I spend a great deal of time on research and that can be time-consuming. But it's important for me to try and be as accurate as possible. Research may involve something as simple as food and fashion or medical treatments and political issues prevalent at that time. Like today, economic and social issues affected the lives of people on a daily basis. So, it would be negligent for a writer to ignore the influence of war or important historical facts on characters in their book.
Much as I love history and feel it is important to embellish my work with historical facts, I strive to paint an accurate picture and not dump a heavy history lesson on the reader. I also strive to make my characters resonate with the modern reader. For example, in my debut novel, The Sense of Honor, the heroine is a young woman who has pushed aside her hopes and dreams to help protect the people she loves. That nurturing, selfless desire to help one's loved one or family is something that many women can relate to today. So, even though Christiana Tatum's fictional life takes place in 1812, there are many women today who push their dreams aside to help others. Whether it is a young women putting college on hold and working to financially help her parents in these hard economic times, to working moms or caregivers of elderly parents, women continue to prioritize and usually put the needs of others before their hopes and dreams every day.
At the same time, a historical writer must never lose sight of the fact their characters must accurately represent the time period. People who love to read historical fiction are also usually well versed in history. In fact, many readers have become armchair scholars because of their love of history and of a specific time period. And nothing will pull a devoted historical reader out of a book faster than inaccuracy about the time period or hearing a character using modern vocabulary or dialogue that didn't exist in their world.
As a child, the historical novels I read greatly impacted my love of history and desire to learn more about certain time periods. Novels set in the Regency and Victorian periods were of particular interest, especially works of fiction by Jane Austen,Charlotte Bronte,and Victoria Holt. Of course, we all know Austen and Bronte were not writing history, but about the time period in which they lived. Still, it's fair to say they never could have foreseen the historical impact their work would have on future generations studying the early 19th century or Victorian era. Without doubt, Miss Jane Austen documented the Regency period with such skill and detail that her work has given readers, students, scholars, and historians a remarkable insight into the actual customs, culture, fashion, transportation and leisure activities, as well as the social and economic structure of 19th century England and its effect on the privileged and working class.
History does surround us and whether we think so or not, it is part of who we all are. So, don't shy away from it. Pick up a historical novel today and travel back in time. You may be surprised by how much your learn and by how much it resonates with you and your life today. And if you have a favorite author of historical fiction, I would love to know who and the title of your favorite book.
Thanks for stopping by. Happy Reading! ~ AKB