The Value of Historical Fiction

The Value of Historical Fiction

The longstanding ability of the historical novel to transport the reader to the country of the past now coincides with a spreading desire to make that journey. How is it that reading fiction is arguably the best way to understand and apprehend our history? There are many reasons and here I only share what I believe to be the strongest and why this might contribute to historical fiction’s recent surge in popularity. I am sure you can add your own.

The past as it exists for all of us is history synthesized by imagination and fixed into a picture by something that amounts to fiction. When we think of the past, we are already halfway to thinking of it as pages in a novel. Professional historians have tended to consider any analogies with fiction even more invidious than comparisons with memory. They sought to distance themselves as scholars, emphasizing that history is scrupulous to the facts of the past and open to scrutiny whereas fiction is heedless of such a constraint. The constraints the historian has traditionally adopted are intolerable to writers of fiction. To the traditional historian the past is the entire process of development that leads up to the present, but to the novelist it is a strange world to tell tales about. The historian will claim a bounty on truth, but there is something else now termed as ‘imaginative truth’ that outdoes the dry chronicles historians provided. Professional historians attempt to avoid fictional rhetoric in their own narratives and claim to remain scrupulous to the facts. As a result, they have retreated to the arid confines of academic rigor. There is nothing, of course, wrong in this, they bring us knowledge. But it remains arguable that this approach does little to take the reader into the past.

I do not mean to discount the work of the historian. Should you ever wish to truly understand the tortuous path leading to the first World War, then it is difficult to imagine a better starting point than Barbara Tuchman’s TheGuns of August. In fact, her work is suggestive of the recent convergence between academic history and fiction that I believe has occurred, with the boundary between the historian and novelist now not quite sharp as it once was. Each has encroached on the domain of the other, history has grown more like fiction, fiction more like history. But the original point remains – it is more than learning about the past, it is about acquiring a true sense of what it was like to those who lived it.

Another option for exploring the past is a visit to historically themed parks, outdoor museums and the like. Take, for example, Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts. It describes itself as a “living history” museum attempting to provide the experiential interpretation of the original settlement of the early Plymouth colony established in the 17th century by the English colonists. The landscape and architecture come close to appearing as a movie set while the inhabitants extend this simulation by answering questions in the dialect of the original inhabitants, as if we know how they sounded. You are invited to be a time traveler to the 17thcentury. This and other re-enactment settings may be faulted for an antiseptic authenticity, but that is not where they fail to engage. The visitor is on an historical site, but they are not of it. The more such settings are appreciated for their own sake, the less real or relevant they become. When you visit one, you are visiting something that has been objectified. You are not part of it. You are simply an observer much as if you were observing a painting on a museum wall. The point is to allow for immersion into the past. This is not achieved through simple physical placement. Preservations such Plimouth Plantation may broaden our knowledge of the past, but they dampen creative use of it. It is the novel that does this best. Moreover, fiction places its readers in the past like people of the time, who could not know what was coming next.

William Styron wrote that ‘An historian can tell us just what happened at Borodino, but only Tolstoy can tell you what it really was to be a soldier at Borodino’. Hilary Mantel advises that ‘History, and science too, help put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.’ What any good writer will do, when creating a scene, is imagine the reader’s engagement within it. It must allow the reader to experience the scene as the writer does. Robert Frost best explains this as ‘No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader’.

The historical novel was a significant genre before its current resurgence. If the past is a foreign country, then only historical fiction can truly take you there. This has always been the case. But why the current resurgence in its popularity? Others have recently addressed this. Megan O’Grady in the New York Times Style Magazine, Crystal King in the Literary Hub, and Melissa Gouty in Literary Lust are but a few who offer many valid explanations for this recent phenomenon, but I feel the most important one has been left out.

A distinction can be made between wanting to visit the past and wanting to escape the present. Has the latter motive ever been stronger in our history? Dystopian novels only take us further in a direction we no longer wish to be heading. Apprehension of an uncertain future also fuels our nostalgia. A safer, more easily understood past beckons, a past with meaning and structure unlike the present with no grand narrative, no story to tell. We are either in denial about this or it is something we do not face up to. By ‘grand’ I mean something shared and acquiesced to by all, or most of us anyway. Instead, our fractionated stories clash and grate. We have no guiding mythologies, no strongly shared codes and must determine for ourselves the meaning of life. We can we can sniff at time honored religions but at least they reduce life’s complications to a more mundane level. There are also narratives such as making money and buy yourself nice things, but such as these are rather shallow. We are probably living in a stage of human history where we might be among the first people who have absolutely no explanation for what we are doing here.

This condition may be strengthening, but it did not begin recently. If I may quote one of my own characters, ‘It was simpler for those who came before Copernicus to have the comfort of believing we sat at the centre of all God’s creation, but no longer. We have been displaced. What are we now? Even the Sun is not a special star, and she herself moves on merrily across the heavens. To where? To what? I fear the more we learn, the less significant we become’.

It is arguable that one way a response to this condition manifests itself is a wish to return to a more structured, more cohesive society. At the risk of being redundant, I will again state that Historical Fiction is the most important genre in this regard. Others, such as Mystery and Romance, tend to the formulaic. There is nothing wrong in this and successful authors who work in these genres are well attuned to the expectations of an established audience. Historical novels, however, must make the added achievement of creating another world entirely, the plot notwithstanding. There will be a story, the unfolding of a plot, characters will clash or associate. In short, all the ingredients for a successful novel will be present. However, all of this must occur within a wholly resurrected milieu, a world whose language, customs and social dynamics no longer exist.More than tell a story they must also accurately recreate an entire society within which readers can convincingly immerse themselves. An added challenge for the writer then is not to modernize it in either large or small ways. I recall a comment from an early reviewer of Goodricke’s Time – they did not use the word ‘hello’ in eighteenth century England. At the same time the writer must take care not to pervert the past by larding it with painstakingly genuine detail.

An awareness of the past is essential to our well-being. Historical fiction is more than mere entertainment. It reveals how people and societies once functioned prompting thoughts about the human experience in other times and places. People did not always act and think as we do. Sometimes it was for the better, sometimes not. The experience of these remote pasts teaches us empathy, understanding and a renewed look at our own aesthetic goals.


The Personal Benefits of Writing

The Personal Benefits of Writing

 There are many benefits to one’s personal development in writing. In general, I feel that writing cultivates worthy habits, behavior and characteristics. These are strong self-discipline, self-confidence, clarity of expression, and a constant awareness of what is around you.

A good writer will have good self-discipline. This is critical in regulating your time in a consistent manner to allow for progress, however incremental, in your writing. Self-discipline also creates good personal habits. We live in an increasingly digital world of needless distractions that nibble away at our time. It takes discipline to counter this. This is especially true if you essentially have your entire day free to write.

An effective writer must be able to distill complex thoughts into easily understood plain language yet not rob it of its punch. It is the idea that matters, not the words. It is not a case of overestimating the average reader’s intelligence. Rather, it not writing in a manner that is needlessly complex. Constantly working at this not only makes you a better writer, it makes you a better speaker. Years of teaching astronomy to undergraduates who were not science majors taught me that effective teaching makes something less complex without watering it down. It also means when you have said enough, say no more.

When you are working on a novel, you are never really off the clock, always observing the world and people around you. A total stranger on the subway can be ascribed a personality before the next stop. Or you may come across an intriguing comment from wherever. Write it down. You might be surprised when later it very neatly fits into a dialogue you are writing.

A good writer must also have self-confidence. By this I do not only mean the confidence it takes to face the keyboard, but also the confidence it takes when asked what it is you do to forthrightly reply that you are a writer. Most writers do not get famous or rich. So what? If they are honest with themselves, they will say that they write to write. There are distractions, there is stress in our lives. But all that evaporates when you are writing. It does for me. So, if you want to succeed at writing, then you must have discipline, clarity, perception and self-confidence. There are other qualities one could mention, but I believe the point is made.


Research Can Be Seductive

Research Can Be Seductive

Researching for background information is necessary. This is especially so if it is an historical novel where visits to archives and rare book libraries are in order. We may now benefit from the Internet, but it cannot provide everything. It was one thing for me to research John Goodricke’s life online, but quite another to actually hold his original large leather-bound handwritten astronomical journal of nightly observations. Not a facsimile, the real thing. When you do something like that, you touch history. Such an experience alone can colour your writing.


Do not agonize over the usefulness of this or that archival material. Take it all. I could not know in advance what would be useful or what would not. I recall researching for Goodricke’s Time in the library of the Royal Astronomical Society and looking through a biography of William Herschel. It was in that volume that I unexpectedly came across a description of the incident where Herschel presented a paper to the Royal Society on the variability of Algol. This ‘presentation’, however, was not made at the Society, but in a pub at the behest of the Society’s president, Joseph Banks. Not being sure whether it would later be of any value, I photocopied it all. Later, it not only proved to be useful, but was a critical event in the unfolding of the narrative. It, like many other events depicted in the novel, happened. Why it did was another matter and that was where I was free to embellish.


None of the above is meant to deny the value of the internet. For example, in one chapter of Goodricke’s Time I wished to describe what it was like to take a ‘water taxi’ down the Thames. These were known, at the time, as tilt boats. What were they like? How were they powered? What was the fee? Was it at all dangerous? Information such as would take up only a few lines in a paragraph but would typically more time to source on the internet. It would be easy to completely fabricate information such as this and maybe you could get away with it. But in an historical novel, quite apart from building a plot, developing your characters etc., you must place the reader in an environment, in an atmosphere. Details combine to give the reader a sense of where they are. Once that has been established, it is easier for the dialogue to flow.


Be aware, however, that research can be seductive. It is a validating exercise – when you are doing it you are working on your novel! But, no, you are not. You are conducting research. There came a time when I could no longer deny that research had slipped into becoming the continual postponement, the continual avoidance, of the demanding and reclusive act of writing. Without over dramatizing, writing requires much more courage and self-confidence than does sifting through archival material in some historic library.. Know when it is time to stop research and face the keyboard.


Characters Drive the Plot

Characters Drive the Plot

What moves the plot forward? The actions and reactions of the characters certainly have a lot to do with it. They might be reacting to events beyond their control; a conspiracy, a catastrophe, and so forth. Or, they could be driving the story forward, as happens in Goodricke’s Time, by their own actions. In any case, it is their actions ought to be believable, they should remain ‘in character’. The reader must have a clear concept of the personality of each main character, something not as easy as it may sound.

The creation of the main characters has two major elements. First, you must have a conveyable concept of their basic personalities. This is critical. If you struggle for convincing adjectives to describe someone you know personally, then how well can you create a fictional character who behaves in a consistent manner? A ‘blueprint’ often suggested in aid of this is the sixteen personality types devised by Briggs Meyer. I did not think it appropriate to simply go down the list of these sixteen personality types ‘shopping’ for the one that seemed to fit. Rather it provides a baseline from which to operate by outlining characteristics of each personality type. For example, the INTP (introverted, intuitive, thinking, perceiving) types are those often described as quiet and analytical. They enjoy spending time alone, thinking about how things work, and coming up with solutions to problems. INTPs have a richer inner world and would rather focus their attention on their internal thoughts rather than the external world. In Goodricke’s Time this comes close to describing Goodricke himself. The usefulness of understanding each of your characters personalities helps them in a way, to push off in their own direction. One of these personality types will likely best apply to any character you have in mind. It can help to exercise this ability to describe personality types beyond the simple ‘introvert’ vs ‘extrovert’.

The second element is to keep in mind that they drive the plot. The main protagonist should be easily perceived as someone who will want something with all their heart. But there will be others who would thwart him. The reader must be able to care what happens to your main character. If they do not, then why turn the page?

Characters need not be wholly consistent throughout. They may self-evaluate and change their thinking. Goodricke, unlike Piggott, was not interested in women, in relationships. His life, his entire life, was science. But over time he began to rethink his priorities. Why this happens, the experiences that lead to this had to be carefully considered and placed within the narrative. His deafness played a large part in this reappraisal of his life’s path. Your main character will likely not have this complication but will still struggle in a different way.


Story First, Then Plot

Story First, Then Plot

A novelist should be excited, a ‘thing of fevers and enthusiasms’, Ray Bradbury once wrote. How does this ‘fever’ come about? The source is a story you have a passion to tell, a story you must tell. Absent this, writing will be flat and aimless. This has led me to believe that ‘writer’s block’ is perhaps better described as ‘story block’. If there is no story, then what is there to write? A story is what the novel is about while a plot is what happens. Once you have the story, then ‘writer’s block’ begins to fade. At least that was my experience.

A famous author once wrote that ‘finding the stories is not the hard part, writing them down is’. I suggest this may be backwards, or perhaps not quite complete. Finding stories can be the hard part and, once you have one, writing it down is the easier part. Moreover, it may also be the case the story finds you. I found it was all too easy to confuse a story with an idea for a book, Ideas come and go. Perhaps this is what that this author had in mind. There is a distinction between an idea for a novel and a story to tell. One instills a passion to be written, the other is not much different than writing to for the Sunday magazine. One idea that came to mind was the lost concept of honor and how there was a time when it was within the law to challenge someone to a duel to the death if that honor was questioned. Much has changed, not to mention the concept of having honor. When was the last duel legally fought, by whom and for what reason? Were pistols at ten paces precursors of the classic Western street gunfight? And so on. In the end it was filed away for another day, as ideas often are.

A story is something more than an idea. It is more an emotional craving and less a dispassionate concept. It is driven by some personal truth and one you may not have been aware you have. I believe it is even arguable that you can only know something is true through the act of writing. This is what is I believe Oscar Wilde meant by saying anything worth knowing cannot be taught, it comes from within. The more this becomes clear then the more inspired, and inspiring, the writing will be.

Finding the story is not easy, at least one that fills you with ‘enthusiasms’. But once you have one then the writing should become easier. The more commanding and clear its message, the easier it ought to be to ‘write down’. At the risk of a cliché, I wrote to learn what happened next. For me it was all about the having that story first. How it all then might unfold is the plot. A plot can have many tweaks, but there is only the one story.

John Goodricke’s life needed more of a telling, at least as far as I was concerned. It was easy to find accounts of his work in history of science journals where his deafness is only briefly mentioned. Goodricke’s Time is just as much about the experience of deafness, and the struggle to teach the deaf, it is as much about his experience of adjusting to his deafness than it is about astronomy. One point about having a story. It helps to tell someone in thirty seconds. You are on an elevator. Another passenger joins you and asks, ‘what is your story?’ and before they exit, you tell them. For Goodricke’s Time it is What is most important in life? Young Goodricke, despite his deafness or perhaps even because of it, could tell you.

A perceptive reader was once asked was Goodricke’s idea of what was most important in life what I thought? Was it some disclosure on my part? His answer, after all, did come from me, not him. How well could I understand something so personal to someone who lived in a different culture over two hundred and thirty-five years ago? Goodricke was a character in my novel. I could not have him behave, have him appear authentic unless some strong idea of his personality was held. How close it is to the actual John Goodricke no one can say. I can say that it fits with Goodricke’s personality as described in Goodricke’s Time. When writing dialogue, it is critical to have a clear and consistent idea of the personalities of the characters. The purpose of the plot is to develop the story, to make it come to life. Plot is what happens. It is the sequence of events inside a story. What is the correct placement or order of these events? What drives the plot? Does the reader care and want to turn the page? What part do characters play in driving the plot? How does one go about making a character pop off the page? These are some things discussed in my next post.