Monday, March 2, 2009

Historical fiction or merely historical setting?

Because I have recently decided to set the novel I'm currently writing in/near 1900 rather than the present day, I've been thinking about why I made that choice. The story wasn't working for me as a modern-day tale, but as soon as I had the idea to move it to the early 20th century (really, within minutes of making this decision), all the elements of the story began to come together beautifully in my mind. Why is this, I wondered. There is nothing about 1900 that particularly draws me in, is there? And it's not like I'm interested in historical fiction, is it?

According to that fountainhead of interweb wisdom, Wikipedia, "historical fiction" is fiction about a real historical period with real historical figures as main characters, and "writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, nominally attempt to capture the spirit, manners, and social conditions of the persons or time(s) presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity." Which is not, frankly, what I'm interested in doing.

What I required, aside from technology that was still physical as opposed to silent and computerized, was critical distance. Looking at the modern world from inside it, as we all do, means that we all suffer from the attribution heuristic, and we can't really see--at this close distance--what's important about our own time. Also, I don't want the story I wish to tell to get lost in all the noise of the 21st century that has nothing to do with my story. So I push it all back 100 years or so to where I can get a good look at it, without my own space/time getting in the way, and where the ideas can be explored without me (or the reader) bringing current emotions about tangential current issues into play. For example, I want to talk a bit about war, but I don't want the imaginary reader's views about the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts to be part of their reading (though of course, in some way, it will be anyway).

But I digress. I think that an historical setting, for me, means that I can talk about people, and human nature, more-or-less as if in a petri dish; the distractions of people moving through our world (and therefore the distractions of you and me moving through our world) don't get in the way, and I can keep the focus on the matters at hand. Which, perhaps, just points up a weakness in my craft. Hmm.

I also must confess that I have a certain dislike of looking too closely at our own time period; it gives me a headache. Another confession I am compelled to make is that, when one leaps into the past, one can be iffy or even deliberately wrong about details of place and history, and most readers won't care as long as the story retains its shape. One of my maxims is that if reality tries to get in the way of the needs of the story, reality will usually lose the battle.


  1. Wow, great thoughts! I think you have a great point. I've often thought about setting my stories in a different time period, but have never been able to bring myself to do it. I kept thinking it would require too much research and that I'd get things wrong and get a lot of flack for it.

    I'm glad that you have found a spot to put your story that works. What a relief! I'm wondering what makes the difference between historical fiction and historical setting, though. To me they almost mean the same thing at first glance, but with a bit more thought, they are definitely different. I'll have to keep pondering this one!

  2. Oh, dear -- I'm afraid, that, as a historian by trade, I find it rather appallilng to say that one can be "iffy" about historical accuracy. That's the kind of attitude I expect from Hollywood (never without ranting) but not from novelists. On the other hand, your earlier entry about the grinding of machinery seemed to me to perfectly capture the zeitgeist of the last turn of the century, so maybe you have unconsciously tapped into the mood of the period even without formal research.

    There's a tremendous amount of historical material available covering early 1900s Americana; it's an accessible period, as far as historical periods go.

  3. Scott, is your novel with the devil the same one which is set in circa 1900 Baltimore?

  4. Tara,

    Yes, the devil in Baltimore circa 1900.

    And perhaps I overstated my attitude about historical research. My last book took place in the latter part of the 16th century, in Saxony and Denmark, and I did a huge amount of research for that. I must've read ten or twenty times as much material as I ended up writing. But, as I say, there were some inconvenient facts that I had to simply ignore in order to have the plot work, and so my needs trumped historical fact. Likely that's unconscionable, but there was also a "what if X rather than Y" element to the story. Mostly, however, historical research broadens the ideas of my writing, and the more I know about my setting, the better the story becomes and I get additional ideas that I like.

  5. This is an interesting discussion. I think from the readers point of view, which for me is why novels are classified in the first place, the term historical fiction implies that, along with getting a good story, they will also be getting a history lesson. They want to learn and for that reason, they want to learn correct things. Having said that, for me, the fact that you call your writing fiction, gives you free range to say whatever you want and to skew facts if need be. Depending on how big those changes are, though, can affect how the reader accepts it.

    I once wrote a story about a woman who cooked all these dishes for her loved ones. The class I was in liked the story but were upset when they found out I made up the recipes for the dishes. It was really interesting to me that they were fine with made-up characters but not made-up details. It's something I don't understand, but I think there is an intuitive sense involved in knowing what you can fake and what readers expect you to be honest about.

    From the writer's side, classifying your book can help you get published, I think. Though I don't consider my book as multicultural fiction, a lot of readers see it that way, and I'm willing to call it that for publication purposes. There are details of a different culture, there, but they are minimal.

  6. "One of my maxims is that if reality tries to get in the way of the needs of the story, reality will usually lose the battle."

    Ha ha. Indeed. I understand why you wouldn't want to get all wikified on us and explain the minutia of the year 1900. Leave that to the history books.

    Writing in a fantasy world is also freeing. It's your world, so you can make and break rules whenever needed. The readers probably aren't going to complain when you make the Jibby race fatter than the Jabby race. After all, it's always been that way.

    Even when I write about the present, I leave out a lot of tiny details because they can bog down the story. I don't need readers e-mailing me about the components of an engine when I'm trying to get across love, sacrifice and redemption.

  7. Well, I am attracted to the Baltimore 1900 setting for historical reasons: the previously-mentioned sounds and physicality of industry, certain political movements going on at the time, proximity to Washington DC and the Pentagon, and also more personal reasons (I was a little kid in Baltimore).

    Some historical facts I will probably use: At the turn of the century Baltimore had a public transportation system (trolley buses pulled by horses) that was pretty well-established. Edgar Allen Poe died in Baltimore (50 years or so before my story is set). Tuberculosis ran riot. Also, in 1900 the Spanish-American War had just been fought, which will figure into the story. There were also waves of immigrants entering America at Baltimore, and labor unions (led by these immigrants) were on the rise, which is also important for what I'm writing.

    But still, if it I have to compress or otherwise change the actual timeline of events to knit together my narrative, I'll do it.