Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Writing Historical Fiction (Well)


Another Tumblr anonymous query whose answer I'm also posting here as of possible wider interest:

"What advice would you give to someone who wants to write about Alexander?" Sorry I didn't clarify, I was thinking of writing a fictional novel (but do not plan to publish it, lol)

Well, if you’re just writing for yourself with no plans to publish, you don’t have to worry about constraints like wordcount and publishability. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sell mainstream historicals. Selling a genre historical is easier (historical fantasy, historical mystery, historical romance). But there’s a reason it took me 30 years to get Dancing with the Lion into print. Yes, some of that time I was actually writing it, but much more was devoted to finding a market for it, and notice that I did, finally, have to sell it as genre even though it isn’t really. (It was that or shelve it forever.)

Yet if you’re asking for my recommendations, I assume you want to write something that’s marginally readable. Ergo, what follows is general advice I’d give anybody writing historical fiction.

For historicals, one must keep track of two things simultaneously: telling a good story, and portraying history accurately enough. It’s possible to do one well, but the other quite badly.

First, let’s look at how to write a good story.

There are two very basic sorts of stories: the romance, and the novel. Notice it’s romance small /r/. A romance is an adventure story; in romances, the plot dominates and characters serve the plot. A novel is character-driven, so plot events serve character development. Dancing with the Lion is a novel.

Once you’ve decided which of those you’re writing, you have a better handle on how to write it. You also need to know where you’re going: what’s the end of the story? What are the major plot points? Writers who dive in with no road map tend to produce bloated books that require massive edits. That said, romances will almost always be faster paced, in part because “what’s happening” drives it. Whereas in novels, the impact of events on characters drives it. Exclusive readers of romances are rarely pleased by the pacing of novels. They’re too slow: “Nothing is happening!” Things are happening, but internally, not externally.

Yet pacing does matter. Never let a scene do one thing when it can do three.

You will want to pay attention to something called “scene and sequel.” A “scene” is an event and a “sequel” are the consequences. So let’s say (as in my current MIP [monster in progress]) you open with a fugitive from the city jail racing through the streets with guards following: he leaps the wall of a rich man’s house and ends up in the bedroom of a visiting prince. That’s the scene. The sequel is the fall-out. (House searched, prince hides fugitive, prince gets fugitive to tell him why he’s running.) Usually near the end of the sequel(s) to the first scene, you embed the hook to the next (a slave of the rich man has been found murdered outside the city walls). The next scene concerns recovering the body and what they discover (then fall-out from that). Etc., etc., etc.

That’s how stories progress. Or don’t progress, if the author can’t master scene-sequel patterns.

It also means—again—you need to know where you’re going. Outlines Are Your Friends. But yes, your plot can still take a sharp left-hand turn that surprises you…they almost always do.

When I sat down to write Dancing with the Lion, I knew three things:

1)     I wanted to write about Alexander before he became king.

2)     I wanted to explore his relationship with Hephaistion.

3)     I especially wanted to consider how both became the men they’d did.

With those goals in mind, I could frame the story. Because I always intended Hephaistion to be as important as Alexander, the novel opens in his point-of-view to establish that. And because I didn’t want to deal with Alexander as king, the novel had to end before he became one. History itself gives a HUGE and obvious gift in the abrupt murder of Philip. Where to open was harder to decide, but as I wanted to explore the boys’ friendship and its impact on their maturation into men, I should logically begin with their meeting, and decided not to have them meet too young. From there, I spun out Hephaistion’s background, and his decision to run away from home to join the circus, er, I mean Pages. 😉

IMO, Alexander’s story is Too Big to do in a single novel, or you get an 800+ page monstrosity like Chris Cameron’s God of War. The author must decide on what piece of the story she wants to tell. (Or, like me, view it as a series.)

So that’s (in a nutshell) how you construct a story.

As for the historical side, there are three levels here:

1)     What the world looks like (details).

2)     The events that take place.

3)     How people living in that world understand life, the universe, and everything.

Number two is probably the easiest. Numbers one and three require deeper research on all sorts of things. Sometimes historical novels spend all their time on number one and completely forget number three exists.

The past is a foreign country. Just as you wouldn’t (or at least shouldn’t) write a novel set in Japan (if you’re American) without learning something not only about the physical country but also the customs…same with stories set in the past.

This is why the Oliver Stone movie failed. He put modern people in a costume drama. He didn’t understand how ancient Macedonians (or Greeks or Persians) thought. So he committed crazy anachronisms like the oedipal complex between Alexander and Olympias. Freud may have named his theory after a Greek hero, but it’s largely a foreign idea to the Greek mind. (Whether it’s valid at all is a topic for another day).

The author has to let ancient people be properly ancient.

Problem: what do you do when they’re SO foreign they’re impossible to understand for modern readers—or their attitudes are outright offensive?

Well, if you don’t plan to get your story published, you don’t have to worry about that. Or not as much. But if you want to share it with others, you might still want to consider it.

There are two basic approaches:

1)     Introduce your world through a “stranger” who enters it.

2)     Spread out more “modern” views among various characters in the story, to give modern readers something familiar to hang onto.

The first of those is by far the most common. So in Outlander, Claire Randall—quite literally a modern woman—introduces the modern reader to Jacobite Scotland. As she learns about her new world, so does the reader, and in Claire, the reader has a voice to express both their fascination and their horror of that world. In Judith Tarr’s Lord of the Two Lands, she uses Meriamon, an Egyptian priestess, to enter the Macedonian world of Alexander. Judy can then contrast Egyptian and Macedonian cultural values in order to explain them. Meriamon asks questions the reader wants answers to—or Niko (or Alexander) ask questions of her about Egypt.

The second choice (which is what I did in Dancing) is to identify cultural mores likely to offend modern readers: indifference to slavery, glorification of war and conquest, Greco-Macedonian attitudes towards women, and Greco-Macedonian attitudes towards sexuality. Then to assign one of the characters to voice a more modern view. Alexander gets to be a proto-feminist, and I gave points of view to two women. One of those women, I made a slave. Hephaistion gets to express a more modern view regarding the horrors of war. Sexuality was a bit tougher, but I used the boys’ atypical relationship—that the younger is the one of higher status—to illustrate Greco-Macedonian assumptions about what a male-male relationship should look like.

That approach presents more hurdles, but for my purposes, I preferred it.

I harp on this because it’s the biggest problem for historical fiction: not having historical characters! It wrecks what might otherwise be decent research into the details. No matter how much you look up what they ate, how they dressed, the way their houses were laid out…if you have them behaving anachronistically, it’s a bad historical. Or if you have circumstances that just wouldn’t occur.

Let me give an example. I’ve said before that, when I started writing the novel in December of 1988, Dancing always began with a run-away boy (Hephaistion). But in my initial version, he showed up in Pella incognito. The more I read about Macedonia, however, the more I realized that was virtually impossible. There just weren’t that many Hetairoi. He’d have been recognized, and probably sooner rather than later. So I went back to the drawing board and, instead of having him try to hide, he comes right out and says who he is, and that he wants to join the Pages. It might take away the “mystery,” but set up more interesting dynamics: would Philip let him stay? What would his father do? Etc.

That requires the author know enough about the culture to know what’s possible, probable, and impossible. It also requires the author to be willing to change original plans in order to reflect reality, not insist on doing ___ anyway.

A good example of jettisoning history in favor of “what I want to do!” can be found in David Gemmell’s Lion of Macedon. So many, many things wrong with that book, starting with his choice to make Parmenion a Spartan for no historical reason whatsoever—but (I assume?) because Spartans Are Sexy. Parmenion likely belonged to the royal house of Upper Macedonian Pelagonia. Although even if he didn’t, absolutely nothing suggests he wasn’t Macedonian, and quite a lot says he was. The whole duology (with included The Dark Prince) was essentially Blue Boltz ™ Epic Fantasy Does Greece. The fact he actually included a bibliography in back, and got weird, isolated details right only added insult to injury.

Yet Gemmell was a best-selling British fantasy novelist who knew pacing and how to spin a good yarn. For a reader with zero knowledge of Alexander, it would stack up as a predictable but tolerable fantasy set.

Remember that as an historical fiction author, your job is to practice the art of getting it right. If that isn’t important to you, please God, write something completely made up.

At the spectrum’s other end is Showing Notecards on Every Page. You’ve done ALL that hard research, and you’ll be damn sure the reader knows it!

Um, the reader doesn’t care. The reader wants to be transported to another world. They don’t care how locals in that world shoed horses (or if they shoed horses at all). That matters only if your main character’s a farrier. And even then, it matters only if said-farrier is having a conversation with someone else while shoeing a horse.

If people want all the little details of history, they’ll read a history book.

Now, how much detail is “too much” can vary from reader to reader, and often has something to do with the genre.

Regular readers of historical fiction are fans because they enjoy history. So they’ll expect proper world-building. But they don’t want the Dreaded Information Dump. Weave in details. The Dreaded Information Dump is a common beginning-author error across the board, but especially bad in certain genres, such as historicals, fantasy, and SF.

What’s an “information dump”? It’s where the author provides details the reader doesn’t need at that point in the story. What the character looks like, is wearing, their family background, what they had for breakfast….

As mentioned, details should be woven into the story organically. What your character had for breakfast matters only if, later, it’s giving him/her gas: “Damn those beans in my breakfast burrito!” Some details may be useful to set a scene and prevent characters from walking around, having conversations in a void, but again, a light touch.

Similarly, One scene, One head. We do NOT need to see everything from each character’s point of view. No, really. We don’t. And dear God, please don’t “head-hop” inside of scenes (unless you’re writing omniscient, but be sure you know what omniscient IS). Drives me BUGGY.

Anyway, back to the Notecard Showing Problem. As noted above, genre expectations and reader preferences often dictate what IS “too much detail.” Generally, historical Romance (the genre) and historical mysteries go lighter on detail than historical fantasy or plain historicals. That’s because the former two have genre conventions that work against it. Romances preference the love story front-and-center at all times, and mysteries have a mystery to unravel. E.g, they’re plot driven. By contrast, historical fantasies tolerate more world building because world building itself is a feature of fantasy (and science fiction too). And the appeal of mainstream or literary historicals IS the world building, so you get massive novels like Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth.

I’m blathering now, but hopefully this gives pointers not just about writing Alexander, but writing fiction period, and historical fiction in particular.

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