Sunday, July 31, 2011

Historical Fiction is a Dining Room Table, Part I: The Setting

Writing historical fiction is akin to building a dining room table. To build a table, you will need the table-top, of course, but in the next few posts I’d like to talk about its legs, because getting those right is tough. The four legs of historical fiction are: Setting; Plot; Dialog; and Character. Each individual leg must be straight and solid (of course), and you also must ensure that it lines of perfectly with the other legs. If any of the legs is the wrong length, or extends at the wrong angle, your table will be wobbly, uneven, or both.

(If I’m stretching the metaphor here, I do apologize. One of my betas noted that I hardly used any, and I’m trying to practice. The point is that you have to construct each of these legs in relation to each other. You can’t dump the entire historical setting in Chapter One and never return. And you can’t sketch out your protagonist in Chapter Two, and forget about it. You have to slowly reveal each to the reader.)

When I sat down to start The Midwife’s Story, I did so with a bit of an advantage over other authors of historical fiction – I’ve been writing about the seventeenth-century England for nearly fifteen years. (The downside of having this kind of background is you must constantly struggle to keep unnecessary details to yourself. Just because I dug up some obscure fact about the price of butter during the siege of York, doesn’t mean you need to know it.) If you haven’t got this kind of background and want to write historical fiction, don’t give up: Nancy Bilyeau developed her long-standing interest in Tudor history into a thriller set in Reformation England which is due out in January.

But as L.P. Hartley put it, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” If you are going to guide your reader through this strange land, you had better speak the language and understand the customs of the people. If not, you will get lost and your guests will be (justifiably) furious with you. If you are serious about writing about the past, I’m afraid that the best place to start is with a college-level text book. If you don’t know where to start, try finding a syllabus for a college class, and work your way through that. Not only will the text book provide you with a solid foundation for your book, it will often suggest further reading. The focus of your novel will determine what direction your additional reading will take you, whether it is the social, political, religious, or economic history of the period.

If you’re still unsure where to go, don’t be afraid to email a professor at your local college. Such requests are rare, but if you have done your initial homework, they should not be too unwelcome. Briefly explain your project, lay out the works that you’ve read up to this point, and ask for a few suggestions for additional reading. You may not get an answer, but you never know. Whatever the case, do not skimp on the research. Nothing will lose your reader more quickly than anachronism.
Once you have a firm grasp of the time period, the question you must then answer is what role the setting will play in your story. When I started to write, I wanted the city of York to act almost as a second protagonist. I spent hours walking around the city, getting to know the oldest buildings, alleys, and streets. But I then I had to figure out exactly how the city would shape my story.

In a sense, I treated the city the same way I did all my characters. I sat the city down alongside Theophilus Baxter and Will Hodgson, and asked each one to justify his inclusion in the story. Will succeeded and got to stay, but Theophilus failed to make the case and wound up in the file marked “For Book Two.” The verdict on York was mixed, and yours will be as well. Some of what I had learned about the city mattered, most of it did not. (Want to know what the top ten imports to the city were? How much supper at an inn on Coneystreet cost? The name of all the city’s aldermen? I can tell you, but my novel won’t.)

In short, you must handle the setting for a historical novel (or any novel for that matter) with care and deliberation. What you have to say about the world your characters inhabit inevitably shapes your story. The first necessary step is to get the facts right, but the much harder proposition is to figure out which facts matter, and how you can weave them into the story without sounding like the tour-guide that you are.

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