April 19, 2010

AWP, Part 6, The Past Is Another Country: Writing Historical Fiction

The last panel I attended was “The Past Is Another Country: Writing Historical Fiction.” Panelists were Cynthia Mahamdi, Philip Gerard, and Ron Hansen. Cynthia is a professor of English at Santa Clara University and has written a historical novel set in nineteenth century North Africa. Philip teaches at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and his books include Cape Fear Rising and Secret Soldiers: How a Troupe of American Artists, Designers and Sonic Wizards Won World War II’s Battles of Deception Against the Germans. Ron teaches at Santa Clara University and is the author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Hitler’s Niece, among others. (Ron grew up in Omaha, where my inlaws live, and his mom was in a book group with my mother-in-law, though I met Ron for the first time at last year’s Tin House. It truly is a small world.) Each panelist read a paper, and then they all took questions.

Cynthia talked about the dangers of Orientalism ~ the depiction of Eastern cultures in the West that stereotypes and others and essentializes. In other words, we in the West have a received narrative of what people from the East are like and our stories follow that narrative without questioning or complicating it. Cynthia’s historical novel was set in North Africa in the middle of the 1800s. She wanted to tell the story of an encounter between Europeans and North Africans but she didn’t want it to follow the usual pattern: lone male European protagonist meets “exotic” culture, there is war, sultan’s daughter falls in love with him, protagonist is smarter than the North Africans and shows them something about their own culture that saves the day. You know, that old story. In other words, she wanted her story to be dialogic, not monologic. One way she accomplished this is by having two point of view characters, one from each culture.

Cynthia talked about the four obstacles she had to overcome.
1) The fact that you are writing a single character. You have to make your protagonists believable, and they can’t represent “all Europeans” or “all North Africans.” They have to be particularized and have flaws, as well as strengths. She said that characterization is process and plot. One way she overcame this problem was by having two point of view characters ~ one North African and the other European.
2) The problem is that a novel must have conflict, but the conflict between Europeans and North Africans in fiction is inevitably set up as war. Cynthia did not want it to be the traditional set up. She solved this problem by setting it in a time period of conflict with the French, so that the conflict is focused that way and her two protagonists are free to interact in new ways.
3) There is the problem of sources. When you write true historical fiction (not just fiction that is set in the past but is really about the present), all the panelists agreed that you have to do a lot of research. In her case, her sources were in English and were inevitably biased. They orientalized the North Africans. To remedy this, she did A LOT of research and looked for sources that beyond the traditional narratives.
4) Her final obstacle of was language ~ for her research and for communication among her characters and because the past is another country. You have to balance the needs of the audience with an accurate historical representation.

Ron gave a fabulous list of tips for those who want to write fiction.
1) Choose an exact period of time, and know that period in and out. You can’t choose the end of the nineteenth century; it has to be 1892 exactly. People don’t live approximately. They live in a certain year with certain world events happening around them.
2) Read everything you can about that period. Read until you start correcting the experts. Read not just histories but also things like Montgomery Ward catalogs so that you know what people wore and what tools they used. Know their clothing and culture and language.
3) When you are in the library doing research, look on the shelves near where you found your books. Inevitably there are good source material nearby, as books are shelved by subject. (This would also, apply to internet research, where you would follow links. He didn’t talk about it, but the main thing is to research to the point that you know what is accurate and what is not.)
4) After you’ve completed your first draft, return to your source material and reread it. You will find so much to add and enrich what you have but also to correct what you’ve got.
5) Some people ask: When do I know that I’ve done enough research and it’s time to start writing? He would say, when you start correcting the authorities.
6) I love this: he said, “Authenticity depends on the deft incorporation of details.” Which is true not just for historical fiction but all fiction.
7) Find and connect with real live experts on your subject. He said that he doesn’t mind talking about his work in progress, and more than once he’s been at a cocktail party and mentioned what he was working on and people have given him great information.
8 ) Read the newspapers of the time period you’re working on. For his current work, he read something like 6 months or a year of local newspapers (New York City). It will be invaluable background and will seep into your work.
9) Make a basic outline of the plot. It’ll save time and help you stick to historical fact. It doesn’t have to be detailed, just broad strokes.
10) Include only the information that is important to the plot. You’ve done all this great research, but don’t include it. That’s self-indulgent. Only include what the reader needs to know for the story.
11) Free-associate scenes that are not in the novel. In other worlds, get to know your characters from birth on. Imagine what it was like for them growing up and meeting their spouses and other pivotal moments. This most likely will not be in the novel itself, but you need to know how it forms their character.
12) When you are writing about real documented historical people, you need to be as absolutely accurate and faithful to the facts as possible. It should be consistent with the scholarship.
13) Use the Dictionary of American Slang and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to know when words come into being and whether your characters can use them.
14) To help yourself imagine your novel, make a map of the region and either make drawings or find photographs of people on which to base your characters. Having a representation of them will really help.
15) Do not put twenty-first century values onto previous generations. In other words, leave out political correctness, feminism, and other movements that happened after your characters were living.
16) Don’t give too much background too soon. Parse it out.
17) Ask questions about everything in your scenes. What are they looking at? What are they smelling? What are they thinking? Is it accurate for the time period? All this so your scenes are fully developed and realized. No anacronisms (make sure to use correct historical details).
18) “Fiction writers are truth tellers.” You can exaggerate but don’t distort or sentimentalize. Calling it fiction does not remove the responsibility to be truthful.

Philip talked about A.B. Guthrie, author of many novels of historical fiction. Guthrie asked the questions, are these characters actual figures and if so what are the limits of what we can do with them? Philip, like the other panelists, said that we need to be true to the historical record and accurately depict what happened and who these people were. I don’t remember which panelist said that a lot of people get their history through fiction and movies these days, and that is one of the reasons it is so important to be factual. Philip talked about writing his novel Cape Fear Rising, which is about an actual incident in 1898 Wilmington, North Carolina, in which a white mob killed a bunch of black people or ran them out of town. He talked a lot about how the city didn’t talk about the incident at all and about the reaction to his research and writing of the novel. Some people denied the incident, and others claimed it as their own narrative and didn’t think Philip had a right to write about it. But it had the amazing effect of dialog and reconciliation.

What I’m Reading Today: I started The Best Stories of William Kittredge. Wow! Why have I not come across him before!? I am torn between devouring them and slowly savoring them.

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