I’ve always had a fondness for historical fiction, and I’ve particularly admired the commitment and the lengths writers go to, to create the perfect story in our world.
Over the coming weeks, I will be examining a different element in creating historical fiction. These will include: setting, character development, and research, just to name a few.
Each blog post will be concerning issues I have faced, and how I overcame them (or plan to overcome them).
I am by no means an expert. I merely wish to share my personal experiences with the genre, my likes, dislikes, and the highs and lows of my writing process for my first historical novel, Eleanor.
Is there a formula for creating these worlds? How deep do writers need to go, in their research, to ensure their reader is completely immersed in these worlds?
These are just some of the questions I am trying to answer in my quest in completing Eleanor.
After having fallen in love with a number of historical novels, I knew that I wanted to write my own. I can’t remember where I got the initial idea for Eleanor. It was simply a desire to write the un-romantic Romantic. I wanted ugliness, darkness, and to be as near to the raw, unbridled, reality of nineteenth-century England as possible.
One of my biggest concerns with historical fiction is the tendency for some writers to romanticise the period they are working in. And, yes it is fiction, and though I confess I sometimes have the desire to read the romanticised version of history, it is not real. I prefer the raw, unabridged version, including all the ugly parts of history. I want something as true to life as possible, I suppose. Otherwise I feel like I’m being lied to about what life in those times was truly like.
Perhaps I should stick to non-fiction then?
You know I am a pessimist, and you know that I prefer to read novels with sad endings, because I believe they are more realistic… perhaps that is why I need an historical fiction with that darkness.
That may sound contradictory when last time I talked nonstop about my love for purple prose, but if you remember: anything can be made beautiful with purple prose.
Ugliness, darkness, reality; they can be written beautifully. (Beautiful writing or purple prose does not always imply ‘happy’). We can see it in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, and Adam Bede, as just some examples. In historical fiction, we can see it in Rebel Heiress.
I instantly fell in love with Fiona Mountain’s Rebel Heiress (also published as Lady of the Butterflies) when I read it a number of years ago. This is one of my favourite historical novels. There is romance, yes, but there is sadness, rejection, and isolation too, because that is an inevitability of life. You cannot escape the darkness of the world. I loved the ending, and though I confess I would have liked to see something more definitive, or to see the heroine be with her love interest, it was a realistic ending. The fact that it went against my expectations (because I always assume there will be a happy ending), I loved that even more. I highly recommend this book, and… sorry for the spoilers, haha!
It just seems that characters in a lot of our literary worlds have a pretty good spell of luck. I don’t see many heroes dying of the plague, or women dying in childbirth. And that’s where I’ve found a love in Bernard Cornwell. He tells it like it was!
Can you steer me in the right direction? What should I be reading?
What should I be avoiding?
Next book in the queue is The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman. I’ve heard great things, so I’m looking forward to it.
For Eleanor, I am trying to be more accepting of the fact that readers love the romanticisation of history, but I want to add the ugliness of reality too. For instance, I don’t think I’ve come across a book that has described the common difficulty in bathing. A simple act today (for most parts of the world), but as you can imagine, without running water it would have been a pain in the arse. That is something that has come up in Eleanor, in a very minor way. Really, it’s about balancing historical accuracy with an interesting narrative. I don’t need someone to give expert knowledge in the area of Victorian bathing, but it gets hard imagining a world where it seems no one takes the time to use the facilities. Like in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (apparently I’ll use any excuse to reference my favourite game!). Sometimes I wish Geralt would at least stop fighting monsters for a minute to avail himself toilet-wards. I have video footage of a NPC doing it, but Geralt’s too good to pee on a tree obviously!
Paint me a picture, historical fiction writers! Your characters can’t always be smelling nice when their last bathing was a year ago! It’s hard to imagine the hero or heroine being romanced when they stink. Maybe they wear a lot of perfume as compensation?
For my love of The Marquis de Sade, I am completely free to dabble in the darkness. His life was lavish, decadent, toxic, and miserable. There isn’t much argument for adding romance in there, but… perhaps I could? Why not romanticise a horrible man? We romanticise the abusive Christian Grey. It then stands to reason that Sade could be romanticised too. Forcing women to take aphrodisiacs (Spanish fly), pouring hot wax on their bodies, and whipping them; there is a familiarity there, I’m sure 😉
Though I prefer to be ethical, historical fiction is, well, fiction.
Sade the coward? Never! He single-handedly broke out of the Bastille to save Marie Antoinette, his long-time admirer, from the guillotine. History won’t tell you that, but it’s true! He then married her, ‘cos, you know… facts.
So there’s the love story! Sade and Antoinette: A Forbidden Love © 2016 (patent pending).
I’m starting right now! Come on, it could work. You’re just jealous because I thought of it first! I’ll even stick a copyright symbol on it, to be sure.
I enjoy studying Sade’s life, and do also enjoy writing academic papers on him and his works, but I would love to write a fictional creative piece. I have started on a few. Feel free to check out my short piece, Letter to the Marquise.
Although his life was incredibly depressing, it was still really interesting. If someone could write a biography of his life in narrative form… that would be amazing! That’s something I want, and maybe something I’ll try myself.
Now, I shall take my leave because once again my thoughts are getting distracted and I don’t know where to end.
Please join me next time when I look at research for historical fiction.
What are your thoughts on historical fiction?
Who are your favourite authors?
Let me know in the comment section below.