The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Historical Fiction - KEITH NILES CORMAN

The Pleasures and Perils of Writing Historical Fiction

With Scourged Souls Civil War and other historical fiction reads cementing its status as a subsequent interest in all things historical, you may be wondering what’s behind this fascination with history. 

The past can be considered a complicated time. It is filled with many great people, heard and unheard of, who played a significant role in forming the society we have today. History is a long, winding river of people’s lives: what they wore, how they talked, what they believed, how they lived, what are the traditions, and what was happening around them and to them. Due to the complexities, there is a particular allure regarding the past that entices many readers. And for a novelist, the new way of retelling elements of the past into new narratives brings forth an essence of our humanity. 

A plain account of the past can be a bore; it is taught in school after all, right? But writers have come to add something new about the past to form an exciting read. Novelists create an authentic reality— possibly as close to the real thing of that period and place— for readers. Thus, you can conclude that historical fiction is a concept wrapped up in stretching the truth, extrapolating, getting the gist to form a delightful read. So, what are the pleasures and perils of writing historical fiction?

Old Histories Into New Narratives

Historical fiction stories are inspired by historical stories that are weaved into new narratives. Be sure to ask yourself if this story is something you want to tell? Are you writing to narrate an account? Or, are you writing to bring a fascinating story of the past that continues to resonate today? 

However, be forewarned about writing a novel whose backdrop is huge and universally known events or people. There is a concern that historical facts and details of the era you’ve chosen must ring true but not overpower the story itself. There must be a delicate balance between history and fiction. 

Historic Confusion

There’s a sense of joy that comes from research, the beauty of learning new things and interpreting them through another lens of fiction. Most of the time, writers seize the opportunity for readers to learn about the past through their narratives. But, writing history isn’t an easy task. You’ll be faced with research, uncomfortable truths, and biased accounts. Often, the history you find in other books and lectures taught in school favors a particular discourse. Know that there is far more to history than what one resource presents. 

Moreover, accuracy and authenticity are a must as a single inaccuracy can also confuse the reader. This may lead them to believe that what you’ve written was accurate to that of the historical event or period. 

Real-world Connection

Some historical fiction is taught in class. Why? Because it illuminates the time period and enriches historical studies. Yes, historical fiction is half fiction, but almost always, the characters and events are an attempt to capture humanity and the spirit of the time in a new perspective. This statement isn’t to suggest that such fiction novels are stand-ins for informants who are experts of the particular period. These historical fiction books offer a jumble of viewpoints that conveys actual truths. Historical fiction can change humanistic thinking enabling readers to change for the better. 

Lack of Diversity

When writing about 15th-century nobility, you’ll be limited to writing primarily about white people. In today’s time, every race and color is embraced by everyone, but in the past, their belief is on the contrary. There is still an ongoing argument of the lack of diversity in most historical fiction books. Others argue that it’s all in service of historical accuracy. This might not be a pleasant argument that agrees with modern sensibilities, but that’s how it was back then, and there’s nothing to be done about it. If you go against their believed accuracy, you’ll receive critiques from the media. However, history is a diverse place; even if you limit yourself to writing specifically about the European nobility, you can still see centuries of intermixing and cultural exchange. Do not be afraid to venture a little further afield your story. 

Voice of Opinion

Falling into the fantasy brought by history can be easy as it evokes gentility, manners, pretty clothes, amazing people, and breathtaking settings. Yet, the past is not all about privilege; there is a darker, grimmer side of history that can’t be ignored. From topics of exploited slaves brought to America to coups that brought down regimes, there is a lot you can discuss about history. It is a pleasure for a writer to voice opinions of history’s mysteries and controversies through the characters. There is just so much to criticize and question that you can do in your writing, and you’re entitled to it. 

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