November 30, 2010

Putting History in Your Fiction

In another life, I would’ve been a historian. Not “an historian” ~ those academics who espouse, you know, just espouse. No. I would have been an on-the-ground get-your-hands-dirty kind of researcher. There’s nothing more interesting than digging through someone’s papers, say in an archive

And I am an amateur historian. A lot of the news articles I’ve done have been popular history, and my thesis was about historical documents. I was honored to have the wonderful Wyoming historian Phil Roberts on my thesis committee. I also volunteered at the American Heritage Center for a while, doing research lookups and answering questions for researchers who could not come to the archive.

In addition to writing fiction set in present day, I also write historical fiction. Not hard-core historical, but women’s fiction set in the past. Which is not to say I don’t try to be accurate as I can be and I do do a whole bunch of research, but I’m more worried about communicating and connecting with an audience than I am about espousing (that word again) the type of rifle someone would have used in North Dakota in 1894. I try to get it right, but not at the expense of character and plot.

I’m rewriting my first novel manuscript right now. It’s women’s fiction set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas. When I first wrote it, I did a whole bunch of research. In fact, you could say that the research was so much fun that I put off the writing of it by doing more research. So I have these boxes of research. Now I’m going back through and reading them over again and it’s just fascinating. It’s fascinating both about how much things have changed but also how much they stay the same. It’s also interesting that some writers take a hard-and-fast “this is what the etiquette books were saying so it must be so” attitude. However, I like the ones who are more nuanced (surprise there, eh?) who contrast what was probably really happening vs. the proscribed behaviors.

I’m also someone who brings things together, who tends to think about how we’re all alike, a bringer-together, rather than a divider. So that’s why it struck me so forcefully when my professor in Shakespeare drama, the wonderful Susan Frye, talked about the concept of alterity, which means that the past is another country and there are things that they believed that we have a hard time understanding. That they are very different from us in some ways. One example we talked about was the extent to which religion permeated society and thinking in the Renaissance. Another was that people would tenderize their meat before or as they cooked it. In other words, they would beat a pig to death or roast a duck alive.

So I’m concerned with both portraying how similar we are to people who lived in 1885, but also how different. I think I do a good job balancing understanding and connecting with strange language and setting, but I will definitely have to think more about the lack of political correctness, how to incorporate that, and also to permeate it with more religion without turning people off. (I went to a great panel at the last AWP with Ron Hansen who discussed it. See my notes here.)

Another thing I was concerned about when I first wrote this novel is that I’m writing about Native Americans and black people. I wanted to get it right, of course, and I questioned my “right” to write closely about people of other races. Intellectually, I strongly believe it is not only okay but our duty to portray people who are different from us. My writing teacher Alyson Hagy made me feel better ~ she said that the past is another country for people of other backgrounds too, so they won’t necessarily know what it was like for their ancestors either. There is more difference between then and now than there is between black culture and white culture today.

I’m also very gratified because I think I’ve worked myself out of a rut. I was having a really hard time moving forward!

Questions of the Day: How does historical fiction differ from fiction set in the present? What challenges have you faced?

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