Geoff Micks is a fellow Toronto author whom I met online a while ago. He’s already written three novels, the last one being itself the first of planned trilogy with an intriguing premise (see below). I think you’ll find Geoff’s thoughts on writing historical fiction very interesting.
How I Write Historical Fiction by Geoff Micks
I would like to begin by thanking Mary Tod for inviting me to guest blog for her. This is a real treat for me. Mary asked me to write a few hundred words about writing historical fiction. I suspect she could ask a hundred authors the same question and receive a hundred different answers for her trouble, so I will stick to my own approach and let others have their say in turn.
I think of historical fiction as roughly analogous to the air-fuel ratio in an internal combustion engine. How much fiction do you want in your history? What is the optimal balance between what really happened and what you say happened to power your story?
When I read historical fiction, I want to be entertained first and educated second, but I also expect that everything I read should be as true as possible. I understand writers sometimes need to fudge the little things to make the big things work, but I would argue discarding an inconvenient truth for an easy falsehood is both lazy writing and disrespectful of one’s readers. When I finish a work of historical fiction, I want to be able to talk about what I learned without being wrong. It is the author’s responsibility to inform me of what really happened while also showing me a good time along the way.
How should a writer achieve that?
I believe one of the things that divides historical fiction from all other genres of fiction is that the writer must become fluent in a time period and a culture before thinking at all about the story that will take place within the confines of that world. The writer must research that era and the people who occupied it until it is as comfortable and familiar as the present day. My rule of thumb is I should be able to have an in-depth conversation with an academic subject matter expert before I even consider hammering out rough ideas for characters and plot. I need to understand the history and the culture and the context down to the marrow before I can create something false that will fit in that place so comfortably you will believe it is all true.
Let me give you an example of why this is so important to a writer.
When writing about parents having an argument over breakfast set in the present day, it can be conjured up in just a moment: Mom and Dad are rushing back and forth between the breakfast table and the counter, chomping on toast, coffee cups in hand, harried and frazzled with no time to sit down. They hiss at each other in low voices so as not to upset the children. Meanwhile, the children are pushing the last of their cereal around the bottoms of their bowls, pretending not to hear their parents’ harsh words. We all know what that scene looks like so a writer can trust the reader to fill in the blanks and paint the scene in their minds’ eye with as much detail as they need.
Now imagine that argument is happening over breakfast in Serbia in the 9th Century AD.
You can’t, can you?
Oh, you can guess, but a guess from a writer is a lie to the reader. Guess with me: Does a 9th Century Serbian family even eat a meal all together first thing in the morning, or are they segregated by age or by gender? What room are they eating in? Does their home have more than one room? Is there a table? What are people sitting on, or are they sitting at all? What are they eating and how are they eating it?
The fact that we do not know the answer to any of those questions off the tops of our heads means we would be crazy to write a book set in 9th Century Serbia. If we cannot manage to talk about even a simple breakfast in a convincing manner, what chance do we have of building a believable story in that world?
Any writer in any genre needs to know the rules of their world well enough to know which rules can be broken, bent, or ignored. Writers of historical fiction need to go even further, because it is their responsibility to train their readers from the very first page about how that world works differently from the one we live in today. By the time the characters and conflicts are made manifest, readers need to be able to imagine what is happening for themselves without heavy-handed spoon feeding of exposition, explanation, and context. That kind of fluency and familiarity only comes from a deep understanding of what you, the writer, are going to write about.
Only once you have the facts straight can you introduce the fiction to it: “I know I want these important events to be part of my story, and I want my characters to witness them. Who are my characters that I can get them everywhere I need them to be? What do they do for a living? How do they fit in this society? How do they know each other? What do they want out of life? How am I going to keep them from getting that, or at least make them struggle for it? What is the conflict driving this story? Is the overarching historical narrative the conflict driving this story, or is it a personal conflict in a historical setting, or are there multiple conflicts? How do I want the reader to feel about this world and its people at the beginning of the story and at its end? How do I make my characters’ journey relatable to a reader in the modern era?”
Once I know the world, I can start asking those questions. That’s how I write historical fiction.
Geoff Micks is the Toronto-based author of three novels: Inca, about the decline and fall of the Inca Empire told from the perspective of a high-ranking Inca bureaucrat responsible for keeping the State running; Zulu, the story of two brothers who grow up in an Iron Age kingdom with a cattle-based economy that somehow held off the Victorian-era British Empire for six months, and Beginning, the first book in a planned trilogy about a man who has been alive since the last Ice Age dictating his memoirs into a tape recorder while waiting for a mysterious visitor who may finally be the death of him. Geoff is an alumnus of the University of Toronto and Centennial College where he studied Journalism, History, and Classical Studies. His Twitter handle is @faceintheblue.
Many thanks, Geoff! You’ve offered some excellent points on the writing of historical fiction. By the way, what DO they have for breakfast in 9th century Serbia?
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.