Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Ideal Historical Fiction


On this blog I’ve written a lot about different periods of history, archaeological sites, historical people, and my own journey in writing historical fiction. I’m a writer and historian, after all. This is my virtual crate of amphora on which to stand.

But I’m also a reader who loves the genre (and variations on it), and I’m a Taurus, which I’ve been told makes me very stubborn and opinionated. Perhaps just a little.

And why not? I read what I like and make my reading decisions carefully. I don’t have the extra dosh to burn and more importantly, time is precious.

In writing my own books, I’ve discovered what I really like in historical fiction. ‘Write what you know and love,’ as the saying goes. Ok, so I’ve tweaked that saying a little.

I’ve been reading historical fiction/fantasy for a long time now. Writing it too.

So, here are the things that I (Adam) am looking and hoping for when I pick up a new work of historical fiction:

I – Historical Period
We all have our favourite historical period(s). I’m not going to pick up a novel set in any historical age.

I like ancient Greece and Rome (obviously!) and the early Middle Ages, in Britain and Europe in particular. I love the Arthurian period, or rather the ‘Dark Ages’, that bridge period between the classical and medieval worlds. If a book takes place in this broad span of time, I’m interested.

That’s not to say I don’t have any interest in the Renaissance or Victorian ages, for instance. There is much to be learned from all history. It just means that as far as reading, I prefer those mentioned above.

II – Voice and Writing Style
This applies to all reading, but it’s so very important that I thought I should include it here. Before buying something, I’m going to download a sample or read a few pages to make sure I like how the author is saying what he or she has to say. I need to ‘click’ with the author and their style, and this could vary from series to series by the same author.

For example, I loved the Dream of Eagles series by Jack Whyte (Camulod Chronicles in the US). It remains one of the best series I’ve ever read. However, when it came to Mr. Whyte’s Templar series, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t go beyond book one. It’s very subjective, but I have to love an author’s voice and style.

III – Battles and One-on-one Combat
My main area of interest and study for ancient and medieval history has always been warfare. I was never overly interested in the codes governing the Benedictine order of monks, for instance. Therefore, one thing I do enjoy reading about is battle on a large or small scale.

Not only do battles add some nice action to a novel, they can also be turning points in stories (in history!) that have far-reaching consequences for the characters, and sometimes the world. I love the upheaval a battle causes in a story and, well, they are just plain cool!

IV – Heroes and Heroines
I want a hero or heroine that I can relate to. They have to be someone that I want to root for, someone for whom I will be utterly sad when they experience tragedy. This may seem obvious – after all, this is at the heart of good storytelling – but there have been many instances in which I didn’t care about the hero one way or the other.

My preferred heroes and heroines must go on some kind of journey. They must learn and achieve something, and in so doing, inspire me, the reader. If you want to read more about this, check out my previous post The Hero’s Journey.

V – Romance
Hey, it’s not all about blood and guts. Some of the greatest stories in history have to do with great love affairs. Love is a goddess that has governed the hearts and minds of people for ages and cannot be ignored.

If I read a book that is all action, and blood, and tragedy, I don’t feel fulfilled. I won’t be satisfied with my read. And don’t think that having your main grunt head down to the local brothel to make googoo eyes at his favourite whore is sufficient. That’s not romance, that’s lust and a bit of titillation. Some sex is good by me. Why not? Let’s have fun! But I prefer that a writer leaves the cubiculum door closed most of the time. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. There is a time and place. There is erotica and there is historical fiction.

I’ve touched on this in an older post, Oh,Behave! Read that to find out about an embarrassing episode of mine in a writing workshop. Ouch!

In all seriousness, I’m talking about a true connection between a man and a woman, the real deal for which one would willingly die. I’d say all the great stories have Love at the heart of them.

If a book doesn’t have this element, at least in some measure, then I’m likely to leave disappointed.

VI – Pacing
There has been a lot of talk about action-packed page-turners lately, that this is the way to captivate an audience and garner readers. I agree to an extent, but when a book is just page after page of action, slaughter and mayhem, I find it exhausting.

I don’t want to be exhausted. I read fiction for relaxation.

By all means get in some good action sequences. Stir things up. But, as a reader, I want things balanced out with something soothing, or scary etc. In my opinion, if the words and setting are well-chosen, it’s ok to be still. Balance is everything.

VII – Research
This is what sets historical fiction apart from other genres. It usually requires more research than other genres because the writer needs to transport the reader to another age.

To me, the books I pick up are time machines. I want to escape. I want to live in another period of history, and for that to happen the research needs to be meticulous.

But here’s the rub: the historical details of the time and place have to take a back seat to the story itself. This is tricky.

When I first started writing, the historian in me was front and centre. My brain wanted to purge every single historical detail onto the page. I was beating my readers over the head with history lessons disguised as fiction.

Then I toned it down only to be told that I needed more description. It’s a sharp sword edge to walk along. I’ve found that it helps, before writing, to immerse myself in the history of a period and become familiar with everyday details and objects. Then, when I begin writing, I focus on story and the history (and archaeology) adds texture to the story.

I was reminded of this recently by Stephen King. I’ve been reading his fabulous book On Writing and in it he says this:

“When you step away from the ‘write what you know’ rule, research becomes inevitable, and it can add a lot to your story. Just don’t end up with the tail wagging the dog; remember that you are writing a novel, not a research paper. The story always comes first.”

That’s great advice and it took me a long while to get that as a writer. Lately, a reader e-mailed me to say that she had read Children of Apollo and learned a lot about the history and world of ancient Rome without even noticing. I was really happy about that e-mail. It took me a while (and many drafts) to get there, but it was certainly worth the struggle. As a reader, I want exactly that too.

VIII – Description
A lot of readers and writers are down on description and think that it’s boring.

I love description in a novel and I don’t mind it being lengthy if it is beautiful and really does transport me. If someone is writing a story set one or two thousand years ago, you need description to transport the reader. Otherwise, why read historical fiction?

I started reading a book about Hannibal a few years ago. It had sounded amazing to me and I couldn’t wait to get into it. But, I was very disappointed when it became obvious that the story could have been taking place in any century. Sure, perhaps the writer developed the character of Hannibal psychologically, but what about Hannibal’s world? I got tired of the book and didn’t even finish it – a rare occurrence indeed.

For me, description adds beauty and gives the reader a richer sense if his or her surroundings. A couple of examples of wonderful description that spring to mind are John Cowper Powys’ descriptions of Wales in his massive book Porius, and the brilliant, dreamlike descriptions of the Underworld, or Hades, in Alice Borchardt’s The Silver Wolf. There was a lot of description in these novels and I loved every word.

Description, to me, is especially important when taking a reader to a period, and place, with which they are not altogether familiar.

IX – Religion
When it comes to religion, especially pre-Christian religion, many writers steer clear and play it safe. Perhaps this is because it’s unfamiliar, controversial, or even uncomfortable.

I feel very strongly about this because in the ancient and medieval worlds, Faith was often foremost in people’s minds. I’ve covered this before in the post Writing Ancient Religion.

If a writer tells a story set in ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, for instance, and then leaves out religious beliefs and practices or even the smallest of what we might call ‘superstitions’, it does a great disservice to the reader.

A writer owes it to a reader to give them the full picture, or as close to it as possible. There is a lot that we don’t know about ancient religious practices, but that can be a good thing. Where there are gaps, we can approximate, make an educated guess. You can even make it up and then say so in the historical note at the end.

The ancients believed that the Gods were involved in, or affected, all aspects of their everyday lives. As a result, people were constantly ‘interacting’ with their deities whether by making offerings, erecting statues, or praying etc. etc.

In his book, Latro in the Mist, author Gene Wolfe has gods, goddesses, nymphs and other such beings coming in and out of the story, interacting with Latro. Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, and The Adventures of Oddyseus series by Glyn Iliffe are all great examples of historical fiction/fantasy that let the Gods in through the front door. As a result, I found reading those books to be a wonderfully rich experience.

The majority of people today may not be very religious or faith-driven, but in the ancient or medieval worlds, most were. I really believe that should be reflected in historical fiction.

I could probably add a few more points to my list above, but in truth that would be overdoing it. It is rare that I find a book that has every one of the nine elements that I’ve noted.

However, when I do find a book that does have all of those things, it certainly is one that I shall never forget.

But this is just my personal list of what I look for in historical fiction as a reader.

If you have something different to add, I’d love to hear about it.

What is the makeup of your ideal work of historical fiction?

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