Friday, April 18, 2014

How Much is Too Much? Thinking about Historical Fiction

This will come as no surprise to those who know me personally, but I read A LOT of fiction. Very little of it is so-called contemporary - actually, I can't think of the last book I read that was contemporary unless you count C.S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, which I would count more as "vintage literature." :-) I read both historical fiction and "classic literature," as well as the odd fantasy book thrown in for good measure. And the last few historical fiction/classic lit books that I've read have made me start to consider a question that's important for me as a writer:

How much is too much?

In other words, how much "history" - from everyday life details to background events to popular movements - overwhelms the storyline, makes me as a reader start skipping, turns the "plot" into a glorified dry-as-dust history lesson?
I've come across at least two books during this past winter that have done this. The funny thing is, I love history ... but, if I'm reading a story, that history must be worked into the storyline so deftly that I barely notice its presence. Otherwise, I feel like the writer just calls attention to their extensive research which otherwise wouldn't be used explicitly {which temptation I understand - when you spend hours researching a topic, only to use a scrap of the info in the book, it can be a little disgruntling!}. Indeed, there is one particular author whose work I love - His storylines soar with truth - but I usually skip entire chapters in his books because he devotes so much space to background history - history that I don't need to understand the story.

And that brings me to "classic lit"...

Upon the recommendation of a couple of friends, I recently read Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. {I love the film version of this, and the book equaled that version in strength, a happy finding!} The interesting thing about North and South, as well as other classic literature choices, is: the author doesn't feel the need to fill you in on all the background historical info, the exact clothing designs of that era, how streets were built, etc., interesting as those snippets might be. Because classic writers are usually writing approximately-contemporary stories, they don't let the reader know every little detail of daily life or national history. What the reader needs to know comes out through story for the most part. 

So, I'm thinking...

What I as a reader prefer is the classic literature approach, where the "history" part is more organic, even assumed, shall I say? I am better able to lose myself as a reader in such a story, in general.


I have come across a couple of historical fiction books recently that seemed to be doing just that - not switching focus back and forth from official "history" to the main storyline but trying to integrate the two seamlessly - and they didn't work well. Rather than being transported back to a definite time and place, I felt lost. Curious because the storyline and character interested me. But still lost. {And no red shoes to get me home.} There wasn't enough history to provide structure. And a historical fiction book without enough appropriate history is like a chocolate cake with too little frosting. {Unacceptable, to say the least!} So what would I have loved to have with these stories?
  1. Footnotes or brief descriptions in the text. Personally, I don't mind footnotes, but I know a lot of readers dislike them, feeling like they are reading a history book. {Well, they are, but it is a fictional history. :-)} So a simple description of the weapon/clothing item/household tool within the story serves the same purpose. If done deftly, the storytelling spell will remain unbroken, and the reader will continue to follow along. Annotated versions of classic lit books do this very well. I particularly appreciated this with North and South and, less recently, with Daniel Deronda, as both stories weave current-events movements deeply into their stories. Glancing down at the footnotes to understand a comment one of the characters made, etc., furthered my enjoyment of the books. It would have worked equally as well to incorporate that info into the story, for a modern-day writer of historical fiction.
  2. A short historical note at the beginning of the book. For a time period with which most readers have little familiarity, the same kind of short blurb that occurs at the beginning of historically-based films {such as Gladiator - no, I'm not vouching for the accuracy of that film!} helps a great deal.
  3. A map - though this is the one I could let go most easily.
Hopefully, thinking this through will reap benefits for me in my own writing. You see, as a writer, I have lots of research in my head when I sit down to write, and I can get into "trouble" one of two ways - one, by assuming the reader has the background research that I do and so including very little to shape the world I'm creating for them; or two, deciding that the reader must know everything I've researched to enjoy the story.

What about you? Do you agree or do you see this differently? What authors make the past come alive for you - classic or contemporary historical fiction writers?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting ... Feedback is always helpful! {All comments are moderated and may take a short while to display.}