07 May 2007

History Lite

One of my greatest challenges in historical fiction writing (and re-writing and self-editing) is finding the balance. Come on, you know exactly what I'm talking about if you love this genre; how do you write a compelling tale of love and betrayal, intrigue and deception while keeping the facts straight? Over many years, I've found out it nearly impossible to do.

History can get in the way of a good story. Unless you're writing alternate history, you can't have the princes in the Tower survive their imprisonment and Uncle Richard's reign during the War of Roses. A well-documented period, which almost every schoolchild and historian knows about is hard to tweak, just for the sake of a story. Well, unless you don't mind the scathing reviews that say something like, "...total rubbish," "...ridiculous, revisionist history," or "history lite...." In my case, the history of Moorish Spain has many period and modern sources readily available, (though, to my ultimate frustration, there remains a great deal of it in the un-translated Arabic texts). Despite what I'd like to write, I must accept that the Moors did lose Spain to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, while making significant contributions to different disciplines along the way.

It doesn't help that in addition to writing about a unique period of history, I'm also exploring a vastly different culture. As Marianne pointed out in her post, the Moorish influence on Spanish society was pervasive, with examples that exist today in the language, architecture, food and music of modern Spain. As I write, I still experience my initial fascination with the idea of a southern European country under the sway of Islam for seven hundred years. My first draft explored many facets of Moorish society, from the mundane to the exotic. After completing the second draft, I eagerly began to submit what I was sure would be the next great novel to agents and publishers, only to be told the story was not good enough –- too much history and details to care about the characters. For me, finding that balance has been its own work in progress, something I still struggle with each day as I work on the third draft.

What's the process been like for you? How do you strike that balance between engaging a reader and getting the history just right?



Camilla said...

I struggle with this, but for the most part, I pause to study the romances I found richest in historical texture and go from there. It's a fight to erase the emphasis on the history in my MSS, but I do it.

Aureliusz Kalliokoski said...

Isn't "history lite" when you say Moops rather than Moors?


Just curious: do people pick up historical romance novels to learn history, or is the history there, mostly, to make the setting of the romance more exotic?

Camilla said...

I've heard from many readers that they end up appreciating the history when the author introduces an interesting tidbit(author's notes at the end or even Susan Johnson's footnotes) when at first they assumed they could care less about "accuracy".

Tess said...

Well, actually you CAN have the Princes survive because there's no definitive proof exactly when they died. In my TT novel I have them sent to live with their Aunt Margaret in Flanders (she was the Dowager Duchess at that point). Not that I actually doubt that Buckingham did it, BUT I can't prove it any more than anyone else can prove Richard ordered it done.

Anyway, as for balancing accuracy with a good story, I pick and choose my details and ONLY fill in with fiction that which hasn't been documented. This means I don't conveniently move battle dates etc to suit my plot. I try to incorporate as much history seamlessly through the characters' interaction with their world rather than doing the dreaded info dump.

Christine Koehler said...

I can go both ways with this. I love a story (commonly referred to as AU but I believe someone pointed out that they're all AU since it's not a biography we're writing) that take things and twists them. The Princes surviving? Cool.

I also love to read those nitpicking details that make a historical a historical. Victorian mourning rituals, Roman soldiers in the field, the 3 month boat trip from Old to New World without fresh water and no satellite to keep me occupied. I once read a book that went into just enough detail on how to water your farms without the nifty machinery we have today. Can't remember the title or the way it was done, but I remember thinking - Oh, so that's how. I always wondered.

It's the changing of the obvious and the plodding of too much history that has me skim. I hate it when people write in 'our' world but change events to suit their plot – not everything else, but the timing of a battle, or something similar. Drives me nuts.

Aureliusz asked if people picked up a historical to learn something. I have to confess: I read it to see if the author has it right. I love it when they do.