A-to-Z Reflection [2015]

My theme for the 2015 A to Z Challenge was:

Writing Historical Fiction

I shared what I’d discovered about writing historical fiction and hoped those with more expert knowledge would enlighten me in the comments. And they did! So here’s

What I learned

Topic Author Comment or Content
Anachronisms Vanessa Couchman Costive is an older word for constipated.
Backdrop and Back Story spunkonastick, Vanessa Couchman Historical information must be woven in and not dumped.
Dialogue Tarkabarka “I sometimes use modern slang to approximate what slang probably sounded like in ancient times – not everyone spoke perfect, eloquent literary language, after all. HBO’s Rome did that really well.”
Vanessa Couchman You have to evoke the spirit of the age in which your story is set, but in a way that modern readers will understand.“Dialogue is one of the most difficult things to get right in an historical novel. When I wrote my first, I avoided using contractions, like ‘I’m’ and ‘you’ll’, but it sounded horribly stilted and was hard work to read. So I went through the whole thing and changed it into more modern-sounding language. Some historical fiction authors go to huge lengths to research how people spoke. That’s okay if it’s relatively modern; but … it’s no good writing dialogue in Chaucerian English.”
Carrie-Anne “A huge help to me in recent years has been the online resource, The Dictionary of American Slang. It shows slang expressions by the decade in which they originated, like 1660s and 1930s. I’ve been able to correct some mistakes and find substitutes after finding out certain expressions weren’t as old as I assumed, like hanging out and dork.”
Experts Tarkabarka “Talking as an archaeologist, we do love talking about things we spent years studying… There are not a lot of people who ask for the details. Make a historian’s day, ask about their specialty.”
Fiction Carrie-Anne “I really hate when people harp on and on about how something wouldn’t have happened in real life! As long as it’s not something ridiculous like, say, an openly gay couple in 1950s Middle America or a woman in the 16th century with completely modern beliefs, one should just enjoy the story. The most important thing is that an event or character be within the realm of plausibility, and that a solid reason is given for something a little out of the norm happening.”
  Vanessa Couchman “I prefer to write about ordinary people against a historical backdrop. I would find it incredibly hard to write a story about people who are famous historical figures. You have to make the story plausible in the context of the period and the character. I’m full of admiration for people who do take historical figures and write fiction about them, like Robert Harris on the Dreyfus case.”
Guessing Annalisa Crawford “I wonder if writing about a time that has little written evidence is easier or harder?”
  Nancy Jardine “I find it’s actually harder because there is such an element of doubt that seems to need to be repressed a lot! As I stated above, I make informed choices, write them into a novel and then when it comes to the edit stages I trawl the Archaeological internet sites- just in case some new archaeological evidence has provided another, possible scenario. I changed a couple of scenes in Book 2 of my Celtic Fervour Series because of new arch. evidence found in northern England (Brigante territory) which I thought made a lot more sense than the interpretative evidence of the 1970s. For the distant (unwritten) past this can happen a lot – which is probably why authors don’t often favour the eras, or they are authors who like to form very vague backgrounds to their novels and are somewhat less authentic in the process.”
  Tarkabarka “I have done a lot of these with my current WIP since my main historical character is an author, except a lot of his “works” are now contested as later fakes. I made choices to disregard some while I decided to keep others, because even if they are fake, they are very much in line with his confirmed work. That’s how the guessing game goes.”
  Nancy Jardine “That sounds just a wee bit like the works of Tacitus, a main source for northern Roman Britain of first century AD. His work is slated now for being very biased, and politically hyped up to the extent it’s difficult to prove what, if anything, may be genuine.”
Historical Research Cathy Bryant “The internet information on Sei Shonagon always makes me grit my teeth. It almost all goes along the mythical lines that she ded in poverty (hinting that it was due to her immorality), rather than the truth as far as we know it, which is far more complicated.”
  trishafaye(Chrys N Jay) “The internet is so useful and I log hours of research on it. But you’re right, it can easily bite you in the butt too.”
Journeys Cathy Bryant “There are as many time travel novel types as there are concepts of time! From Isaac Asimov having a character outwit the devil by escaping a gaol of three dimensions using the fourth, to The Time Traveller’s Wife. Often conflict is set up because one character is travelling and his/her loved ones can’t; or else the protagonist(s) have to travel back in time to prevent a catastrophe.
Another kind of journey is that which the characters take on a personal level – how they develop and grow as a result of their adventures.
A time travel story I wrote won a competition – it’s very silly but, I hope, fun: http://www.mr-jordan.net/first-blog/and-the-winner-is-timewalker-and-the-riddle-by-cathy-bryant .”“There’s a story by Ian Watson called The Very Slow Time Machine in which the story moves but the main character doesn’t – he is stuck inside the machine of the title. But we see from outside. Decades pass and he ages a single day. One day he holds up a sign asking if he will leave the machine in full health, and the eager, fascinated scientists answer ‘yes’ as they hope that such predictions are true – and then realise why he has been so happy. When he saw their answer ‘yes’, he wrote and showed his question (from his point of view, a few seconds later). Of course as the scientists observe him, he then becomes anxious, as he wonders what the answer to the question will be – you see, he is travelling the other way through time to them. We see his tragic story unfold backwards to him. It’s very difficult to find the right tenses to describe it! Is it a time travel story? Yes, because someone travels through time in a non-usual way in it. But it’s really about isolation and decay.”
  TierneyGeorge “I have read stories with those types of time travels you refer to. Not in the same book though. But really, what I would call time travel is when a person finds herself (physically travels through time) in a different year/place. When the story goes back and forth, I have never thought to call that time travel. In some sense it is, I guess.As for the Journey, you are absolutely right. I am researching the year 1700, and I have a wonderfully detailed book about life back then, but have not actually read anything about traveling on horse or in carriages. The only thing I know is that the gold carriage of Queen Elizabeth II is very uncomfortable. She does not like it, makes her nauseous – according to the tour guide of the stables. I suppose that would be a good starting point for my modern-day character traveling back.”
List of Authors suesconsideredtrifles “Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Vyner-Brooks, Cynthia Harnett, Elizabeth Goudge (Towers in the mist)”
  Cathy Bryant “Mary Renault. As a child I read Jean Plaidy’s books, and while they aren’t great literature (whereas Mary Renault is very highly regarded) they did give spark an interest in history. For the best book about Richard III, Josephine Tey’s novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ contains the best historical research and was instrumental in clearing his name. Robert Graves’ Claudius books.”
  Tarkabarka “Mary Renault!!! Also, Edward Rutherfurd, and Bernard Cornwell. Robert Merle. Mika Waltari. Robert Graves. Maurice Druon.
And I do love Philippa Gregory!”
  Gill Downs “Probably stating the obvious, but Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is highly regarded and wonderfully written.”
  Rolande Clarke “Recently read Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire about Briseis and the Trojan War – very well researched given the period. Loved Mary Renault and as a child read a lot of G A Henty, although not sure if he would now be accepted as accurate.”
Museums Tarkabarka “I love museum shops! One, they are like a mini-exhibition in themselves (of consumerism, I guess), but they also sell a lot of useful stuff! For example, museum shops all around Rome sell posters depicting Rome at different points in its history… Extremely useful!”
  Annalisa Crawford “My eldest son is revising for history exams next month, and went to London to see an exhibition at the Science Museum on the topic – it brought it to life for him in a way just reading about it didn’t do.”
Overwriting Tarkabarka “The art of historical fiction is adding just enough information to keep it coherent and interesting…”
Person suesconsideredtrifles “There has been a fashion for long stories told in the 1st person by a series of characters. The transition between chapters or parts can be a little difficult for the reader.”
  Tarkabarka “At some point I discovered that I like first person historical narratives. I think it helps me focus the information to things that person would or wouldn’t do, and saves me from info dumping.”
  Carrie-Anne “I’ve done exclusively third-person omniscient for over 20 years now, since that’s the established standard for historical, particularly when you’ve got a large ensemble cast. However, I do enjoy short first-person interludes, like a letter, journal entry, note, or op-ed. It’s fun to write in just one person’s voice for a few pages.I really dislike the trend towards first-person, particularly the whole alternating narrators trend. It’s like these writers have forgotten third-person omniscient exists, and that books several decades ago didn’t bop back and forth between major characters, one chapter at a time. I was unable to finish what promised to be a great historical for this very reason, a book told from the alternating POVs of the last Grand Duchesses of Russia. It was even worse, because it just HAD to be first-person present tense as well.”
Question Tarkabarka “Of course a lot of characters would only star questioning when they run into obstacles…”
Religion Carrie-Anne “I had to learn a lot about Orthodox Christianity for my Russian novels. It’s kind of embarrassing how I made a number of unintentional mistakes in the beginning, under the naïve, misinformed assumption that Orthodoxy is like a more old-fashioned, stricter form of Catholicism. The two faiths have some surface similarities, but they’re quite different in some pretty important ways. At least I didn’t get everything wrong, since I did know Orthodox priests are allowed to be married and have children, and that they cross themselves in a different direction.”
  Sabina “It’s true, most historical fiction does seem to be more modern in terms of its representation of religion and the impact of it on people’s daily lives.”
Women Cathy Bryant “It’s always jarring when a supposedly Victorian heroine nips to the shops, pops in to see a male friend and chats away with the doctor – all by herself!”
  Carrie-Anne “It’s so important to keep in mind how a woman of a certain era could’ve gone against the grain in a way which would be plausible within the parameters of that time. The obvious examples I always think of are Scarlett O’Hara and Amber St. Clare, who were gutsy, go-getting women and anything but wilting flowers, while at the same time not going against the basic conventions of their respective eras. Amber, for example, doesn’t flaunt her unwed motherhood, and pretends to be a married woman when she’s expecting her first child at sixteen.”
Youth and Young Adults Deborah Swift Condense the story by showing (not telling) and with careful use of language. Show teenagers’ tendency towards exaggeration and impetuosity. Use language that is neither ancient and stilted nor too modern. Inform and entertain with a fast pace, small chunks and illustrations. Consider adding a glossary. Include gruesome details.

Many thanks to everyone who commented.

Blogs I followed

These are the blogs I followed during the challenge. I wish I’d had time to visit more blogs, but these were all very interesting. And different. I learned a lot from them, too.

Arlee Bird: Blogging

Carrie-Anne: Brave individuals who’ve been honoured by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations

Chrys N Jay: The faces of love

Trisha Faye: Things from the past

calliopeswritingtablet: History

Elizabeth Hein: The Galapagos Islands

Annalisa Crawford: 26 vignettes that have nothing at all to do with each other

Sue’s trifles: The names of God

Roland Clarke: The War of 1812

Zalka Csenge Virág: Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary

Karen Jones Gowen: Guatemala

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