This week’s topic is What makes for memorable historical fiction? I’m going to chime in on this one, since I’ve recently put out Into the Woods, but first let’s hear from my guest, Paul Clayton. Paul is the author of White Seed: The Untold Story of The Lost Colony of Roanoke.
The things that make historical fiction memorable are the mystery and wonder the stories elicit and, of course, the hidden elements of craft which make it all happen.
My history as a reader is, of course, longer than my history as a writer. As a youth, I remember being captivated by historical novels that brought mysterious worlds from the past to life and peopled them with characters that were not all powerful ciphers, but rather, people just like myself or people I knew.
Some titles that captivated me were: The Red Badge of Courage, Huckleberry Finn, and A Light In the Forest. What was the country like during slavery? And what was it like to be a combatant during the Civil War, when Americans slaughtered each other in such huge numbers? And what was this continent like when all those Indians lived here… people who have left behind only their names on rivers, lakes and mountains?
Some more modern titles that intrigued and delivered for me… Shogun, The Oxbow Incident, Pillars of The Earth. What the hell was a Shogun? And what were those early contacts between the Europeans and the medieval Japanese like? And how could those cowboys cold-bloodedly hang a man? And how did those dark-age Christians perceive God? Follett seems to suggest that they probably saw Him much the same as some of us moderns look at the possibility of alien life forms, with wonder, awe, and fear. In Pillars… the huge, beautiful cathedrals were in a sense, not unlike the huge stone monuments in the jungles of Central America, erected, not only to house holy men and provide a safe, clean place for worship, but rather to please and placate the gods, or God, and stay his or her or their wrathful hand(s).
As a writer, how do we do that. How do we pull it off without the reader seeing the strings? We can pour through books of facts, of genealogy, of archeology. But the writer must take all those facts, like pixels of color, and fit them together as best he or she can, using his or her intelligence, his/her guiding compass of artistic intuition, and, possibly, most importantly, his or her life experience. I think this last element might put historical fiction in a special category. If you’re sixteen, it’s a stretch to write about being a grandfather. But if you’re 78, barring Alzheimer’s, it’s not that tough to imagine being sixteen again. The magic aspect of all of this is bringing a historical period and its characters to life. Much like a scientist brought a dinosaur to life by cloning in Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the historical novelist brings a time to life by injecting the DNA of his or her own life experiences into the genes and bones and flesh of history, legend, culture, religion, art, language, etc.
I remember doing a reading when a young, Hispanic-looking man asked me how I, a blue-eyed Anglo-looking man, could write from the Native American’ POV. I told him that I had done a ton of research, that I had read books about Native Americans written by Native Americans (and by Anglo-Americans), that I had a great imagination, and, most importantly, that I was human… and so were they.
This meant that they had the same emotions as I, surely the same love for their children and elders, the same love of land, tribe, the same apprehension about ‘the other’. In fact, I am still amazed at how two different authors treated the same individual, namely Black Elk. The first, John G. Neihardt painted him in mythic fashion (in this writer’s opinion) in Black Elk Speaks: Being the Life Story of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux, making him unapproachable and larger than life. The second, Michael F. Steltenkamp, in Black Elk: Holy Man of the Oglala, depicted someone totally human and lovable, like an elder uncle, a fellow human – although, it must be mentioned that Steltenkamp’s book dealt with Black Elk’s life after he had converted to Christianity and ‘joined up’ with the dominant, Euro-Christian culture.
When I was writing my Calling Crow series, getting into the heads of my sixteenth century Spanish conquistadores sometimes seemed more of a stretch than understanding the Muskogee people living along the Florida coast. Why? Well, as modern Americans, which culture, as depicted in current cultural treatments is more approachable, more imaginable – gentle people living in small communities, fishing and planting on a small scale as to not leave traces on the environment… Or, a people emboldened by their recent military expulsion of a longtime, foreign occupier (the Spanish Reconquista of 1492), and infused with an overarching moral structure (Middle Age Catholicism), that had set itself on a quest for world wide dominance using ‘conversion’ as a tool to pacify native peoples and as a salve to the consciences of the conquerors.
When I wrote my Vietnam novel, Carl Melcher Goes to Vietnam, I was simply driven to tell my story, and the stories of my friends over there. But now, being as that story took place over forty two years ago, I guess the first novel I wrote had been historical fiction. It certainly is now.
And that experience (Vietnam) of being part of one’s Country’s overseas military/political adventure, of being a stranger in a strange place… I believe that made it perhaps a little more possible for me to bring to life the story of those English settlers abandoned by their corporate/government sponsors back in the new lands of Virginia.
I’ll close with an invitation to pick (or download) a copy of my latest, White Seed: The Untold Story of The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Then, go back, and see what happened to those people who disembarked on Roanoke Island over four hundred and twenty years ago.
In trying to answer this question, I spent a great deal of time reflecting on my personal favorites in the historical fiction genre, and what I like about them. I noted many differences.
I love Pillars of the Earth and World Without End by Ken Follett, primarily because of the twisting plot lines. Every time things are going good for our protagonist, someone foils it, and them someone foils that character’s plans, and round and round we go. You never feel that any character is safe, nor that any conflict is resolve.
I love Bruce Alexander’s John Fielding mysteries, well, because I love a good mystery. Setting them in the colonial period, which fascinates me, is icing on the cake.
William Dietrich’s Ethan Gage novels are among my favorites because Gage is such an engaging (no pun intended) character: roguish, funny, clever, capable, but flawed.
I enjoy Edward Rutherford’s books because they are so grand in scale, and give a fascinating picture of how a particular place changes over time, and opens a window on what forces shape history and culture.
In searching for common ground between these diverse authors whom I regard as my favorites in the genre, I realized that all of them have a way of bringing the past to life without being heavy-handed. When I read a book by one of these authors, I feel like I have climbed into a time machine, and have been transported to the time and place about which they are writing. Thanks to these authors, I’ve lived in a medieval monastery, wandered through Covent Garden, gone to Egypt with Napoleon, and so much more.
What makes these books special is the small details. These are more than generic romance or adventure stories set in a particular time period, with the label “historical fiction” stamped on them so booksellers will know where to shelve them. The authors sprinkle in details about everyday life, politics, religion, and culture of the time period to give it a feeling of authenticity. I’ve read enough reviews of the aforementioned works to know that some of them miss a few minor things here and there (one reviewer criticized Follett because a peasant woman wore her hair down during a time period in which women typically braided their hair). That doesn’t bother me. In fact, I prefer the lighter touch, with a few omissions, to info-dumps that read like a textbook. Some authors are so in love with the details that I wonder why they are writing fiction at all.
I want the fantasy. I want enough details that I can buy into the story. I want enough description to feel that I’m really there. I want a time machine.
Thanks to Paul for a great guest post. I hope you’ll check out all of his books: