Friday, May 18, 2012

The A-To-Z Challenge: H = Historical Fiction

The A to Z Challenge was supposed to be started and finished in April, but as happens so often, life got in the way, and not in a good way. I'm going to finish the challenge, but it probably won't be on an every day basis.

The letter for today is H. For me, that means Historical Fiction. This is a genre that is not for everyone, no more than Science Fiction or Fantasy is for everyone. But that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't write it. Sometimes it's good for all writers to stretch themselves and get out of their comfort zone, so let's talk about historical fiction.

You can always choose a famous person from history... meaning at least 50 or more years before your time... and write about them. But most historical fiction is just that...fiction. You can take a particular time in history, say the 1930s, a particular event in history, say the Civil War, even a particular person in history, say the painter Vincent Van Gogh, and you can write a very fictional story about any of those.

But no matter which one you choose, the 1930s were the 1930s, an era without computers, cell phones, email, or FaceBook, and you had better make sure your research, and your story, supports what was actually happening in the '30s. You can't take the Civil War and make it about something other than slavery, because that wasn't what the war was about. If you are going to change history, write a new version of the actuality, then it's called speculative fiction, and that's a whole 'nother ball game with very different rules. If you write a fictional story about Van Gogh, make sure you read as much about him as you can, to at least get the details right. You can't make him a writer living in Germany during the 18th Century, for example.

Historical fiction requires research...lots and lots of research. I know that is a 4-letter word for a lot of writers! But it's a requirement for this genre. First, you have to know what or who you're going to write about, and then the era you're going to set the story in. You can start with a character that's been bugging you to write about her; you can start with a great idea for a plot and story line; or you can start with a specific period in time that interests you.

But once you've decided how you are going to start, you MUST decide when you're going to start: for example, suppose this is a story set in Kansas during the Great Depression, which started in 1929. You want the story to begin in the 1930s. But the year 1930 was far different during the Depression than the year 1937, so you must be specific about the year in the era you've chosen to write about.

The next thing you must research is the kind of society your characters are a part of. Are they wealthy landowners whom the Depression won't make much of an impression on? Are they a family of farmers who can no longer sell their beef cows to market? Or are they some of the 250,000 teenagers who "rode the rails" trying to get away from poverty and near-starvation during that time?

Once you have these elements solidified in your mind, here are some of the other things you MUST RESEARCH:

1. What were the current events of the time? If it was during the Depression, what was going in in terms of the government, hand-outs, work programs, and so on. What was going on in real life at that time that would have had an effect upon your characters?

2. What was the speech and vocabulary of the time? How did people talk, what kind of slang, expressions, colloquialisms were in use? You don't need to drive your reader crazy trying to figure out what every sentence in dialogue means, if there is a lot of "dialect" used at the time, but dropping a few phrases or words once in awhile is enough for the reader to get the picture. One thing about slang: be very wary of using that, it's much better to put in a colloquial word or short phrase every so often... it still gets across the idea that the vocabulary was different!

3. What kind of clothes did men, women, teens, and kids wear during that time? If teachers wore suits and dresses to teach in, don't put them in jeans or "capri" pants. If teens wore overalls, or homemade dresses, find out what materials these were made of, and don't have them in khakis and skin-tight short skirts.

4. What kind of houses, buildings, offices, shops did they have during this time? You don't want to have a glass-and-cement wall  10-story building when all the shops were wooden frame and on one floor, or an eight room "open-floor-plan"house when all the homes were two or three rooms built of hand-made brick.

5. What was the physcial world like, did they live in a city, small town, out on a farm? were there forests or rivers or mountains near by? what kind of animals did they have, both as pets and wild animals? You don't want your character to hear a wolf howing at night when she lives in a part of the country that has never had a wolf population.

6. What about things like transportation, jobs, schools, education? You can't put your character on a fast-speed train or a 747 airplane when all that was available was a 5 car train pulled by a wood-burning engine, or a 20-passenger Greyhound bus. The type of jobs available, the schools kids went to, the kind of education most people got in that particular era are all very important elements of your story. If very few people ever went to anything but a 1-room schoolhouse and never beyond the 8th grade, you don't want to put your teens or middle-graders in a big middle or high school, or going straight to college.

All of the above elements, plus many more, are the things you must research to make your historical novel ring true. It doesn't matter how "fictional" it is...that's the creative part that will hold your readers' interest... what matters is that you got the little things, those little picky details, correct for the time period you set the story in.

However, having said all of the above...all of which is very still don't want to overburden your reader with a lot of historical "facts." You're writing a story, not an article for an encyclopedia. But you need to have these facts straight, so that the full setting of the story rings true, in time, era, dress, speech, and so on. It's what is called the old saw we all know:  suspension of disbelief... our readers are willing to believe that what we are telling them is true... until they read something they know can't possibly be true for that time period: the girl is caught texting to her boyfriend by her mother...when it's 1935.  Then it's all over for that story, and quite possibly, for that author, at least as far as that reader is concerned.

Don't be afraid of historical fiction. It takes time. It takes that nasty word Research. But the end result is worth it. History is full of wonderful times, hateful and frightening times, exciting times, perilous times, each of which is equally full of wonderful, exciting, hateful, frightening, threatening, funny, lovable, and even miraculous people. Read about it, research it, relive it, and savor the moment in time.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.