25 June 2015

The Challenges of Writing Historicals

by Brian Thornton

Just finished reading David Edgerley Gates' excellent post "The Past is Prologue", which directly precedes this one here on the Sleuthsayers blog. And while I like the post and agree with his main points regarding his preference for writing historicals (a preference I by and large share), I couldn't help but think of a few of the drawbacks inherent in writing what we write.

And since I'm writing this from a deck chair overlooking a wonderful beach fronting on the Pacific Ocean, I'll restrict myself to a few bullet points in no particular order:

There's a certain amount of "World Building" involved in writing historicals.

As is the case with the writing of our brethren in the speculative fiction (fantasy and science fiction) end of the fiction spectrum, writers of historicals are often introducing their readers to a thoroughly alien landscape while setting the scene, be it in 17th century France, 1950s Berlin, Han Dynasty China, or Periclean Athens.

So of course this means a LOT of research. No worries, I have an MA in history, and I love this kind of stuff.

That said, it can be time-consuming. And not just the research end of it, the scene-setting can pose a challenge as well.

After all, if you have a character in a modern thriller walking down a street in a Boston suburb, you can afford to write what I call "thumbnail description." Something along the lines of:

"Susan strolled along the sidewalk behind her Fox Terrier Rufus, plastic bag at the ready. Rufus skittered from tree to tree, along manicured lawns, even pausing to sniff at an appealing looking sprinkler."

Now, because of the age in which we live, most people can easily employ visual memory short-hand and fill in that sort of image pretty quickly. After all, who hasn't seen someone fitting the general description of the character above (you know, female), out on a walk with her dog, waiting for him to poop in the last week? The last month?

But if you're writing a series set in 1840s America, as I do, this scene wouldn't work as is for any number of reasons, including, but not limited to: 1. Ladies of a certain age and social standing rarely went about unescorted, and they certainly didn't follow their dogs around doing their business. 2. Sidewalks were far less common in this era, and if they existed at all, they were likely made of wood, not of concrete. 3. The "lawn" as those of us either residing in, or refugees from, the suburbs, understand the notion, did not, by and large, exist in the walking suburbs of the nation's cities during the 1840s. You had something called a "dooryard," which was about as close as you could get (unless you owned a significant estate. They had lawns. BIG ones.). Dooryards tended to be some iteration of dirt or mud (depending on the weather), and were where visitors left their horses/carriages/phaetons, etc.

So describing the mundanity of daily life gets complicated. After all, even though human beings haven't changed all that much in their basic nature over the last few millennia, the same cannot be said about human society/technology.

And how to shoe-horn all of that research into a narrative?

The rule of thumb is that between 60 and 80% of what you dredge up in your research about your era is going to inform your writing indirectly. In other words, you're not going to share most of what you learn while researching the Texas annexation crisis. While riveting to you, the politics surrounding the quest to make Texas a state would likely bore the bejeezus out of most of your readers. So we pick and choose and cherry-pick.

And no matter how hard you work on your book, someone will come out of the woodwork to tell you how you got it wrong!

This one is a virtual certainty. And if anything, with the easy availability of any amount of disinformation on the Internet, this sort of thing has only gotten worse over the last couple of decades. Nearly every writer of historicals I know personally has at least one good story about a reader who contacted them to lay out a detailed list of ways in which they "got their facts wrong."

(And David, if you've got one, I'd LOVE to hear it!)

You can probably guess how productive engaging with someone with that sort of an axe in need of grinding, and any sort of time on their hands, will be for you.

• And then there's the whole "anachronistic characters" thing.

A double-edged sword if ever there was one.

There's quite a bit more to be said on this subject. And since it's a fairly thorny topic, I'll be picking it up in two weeks, when I'll be home from vacation.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a spouse waiting, and a beach in need of walking.

See you all in two weeks!


  1. Brian, for me half the fun and enjoyment of reading (or writing) something set in another time is getting lost in that world, learning about a time I know little about. But you're right in that it has to be a balance. Too much info, especially all at once, can be deadly to the flow of the story.

  2. Love the beach!
    What I find most difficult to discover in historical research are the most ordinary facts like what things cost ( relative to our money), what ordinary folk ate and how long travel took.
    A good piece.

  3. I got a kick out of your comparing historical to sci-fi and fantasy world building, Brian. I know the thing that shocked me when I was writing my first fantasy novel, was how skilled fantasy writers had to be, to create entire worlds that didn't exist, and yet make the reader believe that they did. All this, with no info-dumping allowed. It's quite a talent, and I can see now how this extends to historical novels as well.

  4. Well said, Brian. But I wish you had been more descriptive of the beach you were sitting on. I need a dose of calming surf and a snootful of cool breeze. And I'd like to add to what you said. Even in the present-day world, a writer can get into situations where detailed rendering of the setting becomes essential. For instance, in a rain forest, where most readers rarely or never tread. Or, as in my present-day thriller The Neah Virus, the sights and sounds of life on an Indian reservation.

    Exotic times and places are both blessings and curses for writers. Out there in the world of readers are some who get bored quickly with details, and others who cannot soak up enough of a different culture, or era, or locale. So how can you please everybody?

  5. Beautiful beach. I am building my world. Life is good... Actually, we just cancelled a vacation because my husband has pneumonia, so more later, history/mystery fans!

  6. My first novel was set in New York in 1963. The day it arrived I proudly showed it to a friend who opened it at random and announced "that happened in Queens, not Brooklyn.". He was right. on the other hand, the police have never found his body.

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