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Knowledge of our past is our inheritance. What we do with that knowledge will shape our destinies...

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Historical Fiction: Not What I Expected-Part 2

So yesterday I wrote Part 1 about the world of historical fiction. I mentioned an article put out by 
Top Hat Books that inspired me to think a little more deeply about it. I especially like in this article where he talks about literary historical fiction verses serialized historical fiction. He talks about three categories of historical fiction: historical military fiction, historical sagas, and historical literary fiction. He categorizes them like this:

Saving Private Ryan

Historical Military Fiction:

1) Strong male readership
2) Tend toward serialization
3) Put a handful of iconic or colorful characters against the backdrop of the history, politics, and ramifications of a battle.

Historical Sagas:

1) Strong female readership
2) Not always serialized but when they are, concentrate on family over several generations
Lonesome Dove
3) "There is a stereotype of bleak northern town, large family, smattering of abuse, strong community, rags to riches..."  source

Historical Literary Fiction:

1) No particular preference on readership.
2) Generally stand-alone novels.
3) Tend to illuminate one particular aspect of history and, though the historical details are important, the stories tend to have very universal themes.

I don't disagree with these categorizations at all. In fact I think they're quite accurate. So what makes a great historical fiction? I would argue that you need to encompass all these things in order to really pull it off. (No pressure, right?)

Seriously, though. In my humble opinion, a great historical fiction should ALWAYS be literary fiction. Of course the setting is half the story, but without great, dynamic characters, both story and setting would just fall flat. 

For example, I recently read a book called The Alchemist's Daughter. I wasn't particularly impressed with it. Oh, it was fine overall, but I felt like so much more could have been done with it. It was fascinating that the MC was the daughter of a true alchemist who taught her his art. Yet, other than that she knew how to do it and helped her father, I didn't feel like the art form was really explored. This was a tale of a young, naive girl who is seduced by a young man who then marries her. It's about her sexual awakening and how she's too naive to realize that he's cheating on her. Don't get me wrong, by the end she does manage to grow. A little. But I just didn't feel fulfilled enough in the historical aspect.

In historical fiction, characters should change over time and that change should be a direct result of the historical circumstances!

Which brings me to my next point: because the whole reason for reading history is to a) learn about the past and b) apply it to ourselves, it is this writer's humble opinion that all historical fiction ought to be at least somewhat trans-generational. Even if it's just a small aspect of the story, showing how past generations played a part in your characters' lives or how future generations will be affected, history must be seen as a flowing ribbon. What effects one part of it will have a ripple effect on the rest!

Don't go overboard with a three-millennia timeline or anything, but make sure your readers understand the whole point of telling a historical tale. In the same vein, make sure YOU (the writer) understand the purpose of telling a historical tale! If you don't make the historical details and setting serve a purpose, you may as well plunk the same characters with the same problems down in present day. MAKE THE HISTORY RELEVANT!

Furthermore, in my oh-so-objective opinion, every historical fiction novel should have a battle of some kind in it!

We all fight battles every day of our lives. Granted, they generally aren't the sword-and-shield type, but we do have them. Yet, in sixteenth century Russia for example, the battles consisted of fire-threatened wooden cities, hand-to-hand combat against Eastern pony-riders, and the intrigues of the imperial court. These things, whether directly or indirectly, shaped the people living in these times and places! Include them in your book!

I've said it before and I'll say it again: it...(I'll use a nice word here) BUGS me to no end when authors shy away from the gritty stuff. You may have to descend into the more depraved parts of humanity, but your story will be better for it! Don't be afraid of this stuff!

So what do you think? Is this too tall an order for historical fiction?

Random Movie Quotes (RMQ)

Don't know what this is? Click here.

So yesterday's RMQ was:

"I don't know why I tell you now, but I see her strength in you. (*whispers) One day, you will be a queen. And you must open your eyes."

This amazing line was said by Mel Gibson (as William Wallace) in Braveheart. Dee of Dee's Book Blog guessed it! Great job! Three points to you for guessing each part! :D

Now for today's RMQ:
"Either what we hold to be right and good and true is right and good and true for all mankind under God, or we are just another robber tribe!"

Immortal words! One point for character, one for actor, one for film. Any guesses?

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