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?