Historical Perspective: Appealing to Modern Readers

Cryssa Bazos and I met while attending a writer’s workshop in Toronto several years ago. We stayed in touch, occasionally checking in with one another on writing related developments while offering encouragement and empathy as needed. I’m delighted to host Cryssa whose debut novel – Traitor’s Knot – is receiving great reviews. Over to you, Cryssa.

Historical Perspective: Appealing to Modern Readers by Cryssa Bazos

In a work of fiction, you often find the following disclaimer included in the front matter: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental.” Historical fiction should include an additional notice to reader: “The opinions expressed by the characters do not reflect the opinions of the author.”

People of the past are both the same and uniquely different than our contemporaries. From a physical and behavioural perspective, we are still driven by primal needs: to love, to survive, to connect with one another, and to have enough resources to thrive. But we are also products of our culture, which is directly shaped by time and place. The best works of historical fiction delve deep into the sensibilities of the past and give the reader a taste of what it was like to live in that age. We think of balancing dialogue—few modern readers would care for authentic 17th century speech in a novel, but the delicate part is to balance the need for historical authenticity in how people behaved while appealing to the modern reader.

19th century French novelist Alexandre Dumas has had his novels translated into film for decades. Modern filmmakers never seem to tire of reinventing his stories for modern audiences. The Man in the Iron Mask is one of his most famous works, second only to the Three Musketeers, and is the final instalment of the adventures of D’Artagnan, who is now a captain of the King’s Musketeers and weighed down by his duties. In this novel, the legendary and unshakeable friendship between the musketeers is tested. D’Artagnan has to decide between honouring his pledge to serve the king, and his time-honoured pledge of friendship to his friends who are now working against the King. A difficult choice for most characters, but for D’Artagnan, whose entire sense of worth is wrapped up in his honour, a particularly impossible dilemma. This proud Gascon would gladly choose the fires of the underworld over having to forfeit his honour.

Yet in today’s world, concepts of honour and duty seem to be an archaic and old-fashioned concept. How much are we guided by these concepts today? On the whole, we make decisions based on convenience; change our minds to suit our needs and our own gratification. Does modern society today understand the implacable nature of D’Artagnan’s choice? The filmmakers of the most recent version of The Man in the Iron Mask (released in 2000), must not have believed we were capable of understanding this choice so they changed the screenplay. D’Artagnan needed a “stronger” reason to stick with the snivelling fickle king he served so a liaison was conjured between our hero and the Queen of France, one that resulted in a secret issue (this same King). That was now the explanation for D’Artagnan supporting the King instead of his honour.

This change had the effect of diminishing the iconic character of D’Artagnan and downplaying the essential element of his nature. More importantly, audiences are robbed of a glimpse of the past, when one’s word and pledge meant something. The original story had allowed us to experience life from a different lens.

Fortunately, historical fiction authors are more devoted to historical accuracy than Hollywood, but does that mean that we are not tempted to insert modern sensibilities into our work?

Modern readers want to see female empowerment. They expect a heroine who isn’t a walking doormat. Yet, most women in the past were restricted by societal norms. There were of course exceptions, like Eleanor of Aquitaine who had power in her own right (and yet she was still imprisoned by her husband). But not every woman we write about is a queen or lived in an era where women did have some rights. My personal interest is in the everyday woman, the one who doesn’t wear a crown on her head.

How do you present a heroine with enough agency to appeal to a modern reader yet portray her true for her time?

One of the challenges I initially faced with my heroine in Traitor’s Knot, Elizabeth Seton, was to make her true to the times without making her passive. It was much easier with her counterpart, James Hart, who I could always send off to rout the enemy with a horse and doglock pistol. But Elizabeth had to be a product of her times. An unmarried woman could not live alone, and she’d either have to get married or attach herself to a relative’s household as an unpaid servant.

How to do it? I once posed this conundrum to bestselling historical fiction author, Barbara Kyle, and her advice was to show my character making choices and taking initiative, even if it was only to take up the quill to write a letter to a distant aunt requesting that she take her in. With that element unlocked, I found other ways to make Elizabeth active and give her agency.

A heroine can be grounded in her time and still be strong. Empowerment may be a modern concept, but personal strength is timeless. There is strength in keeping a family together during war, to do one’s part during times of occupation to survive and help others survive, in other words, to make difficult choices in difficult times.

Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. It’s only through balancing this with the commonality of human nature that we can appeal to modern audiences.

Many thanks, Cryssa. I’m sure readers will be intrigued with your insights on the delicate balancing act facing those who write historical fiction. PS – love your notice to the reader!

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos – England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I. Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself. Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.


FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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23 Responses

  1. An excellent article, and a point we have to keep in mind writing historical fiction. Women in many societies had very little agency, if they chose to work within society. That’s why historical fiction protagonists are so often unconventional.

  2. A very fine perspective from Ms. Bazos (thanks to Mary), and one I’m dealing with in my own HF writing about the 17th century with both male and female characters. Thank you.

  3. Thanks for explicating our loss of appreciation for “honor” as a life principle. As the world has speeded up, we have learned that “this, too, shall pass” is a working philosophy and we have become pragmatic, bartering for good rather than perfect. On the whole I think this is a good thing. But it does explain why so many back then chose to die for reasons I find quite improbable. The definition of “honor” must have also changed: Samuel Pepys’ behaved immorally and corruptly while priding himself on his honorable behavior. Exposure to the dissolute Court of Charles II corrupted this young Puritan absolutely. I’ll be meditating on this all day. Thanks for starting it off on an interesting track.

    1. Perfect is a dangerous concept, I agree. Your comments about honour do remind me that it’s a relative term, it’s definition dependant on one’s values. Pepys probably didn’t think that all that groping was immoral and so didn’t weigh his sense of being honourable against it. Thanks for your comments!

  4. A fascinating article. A fiction writer has to produce work that will get published ,something that people will want to read. And this means going back to what do readers expect when they buy a historical novel : Does the reader want their personal view of their favourite historical era indulged or do they want to have preconceptions questioned ? Personally I can respect a well written novel, but it’s always a bonus getting my views challenged and being made to think again.

  5. I read your article again today, and once again it went to Pepys Diary — but this time to Mrs. Pepys. In the late 1664 she became very angry with Pepys’ behavior. He was preparing for war, hob-nobbing at Court, and chasing women. He bought himself fancy clothes and books, and she had to beg for clothes and stay at home with the servants. He records her not showing up at lunch when he had guests, staying out until after midnight (always with a good excuse), making him read poetry about his jealous disposition, refusing to leave the house for 3 months because she had nothing to wear (he must have disagreed because he didn’t buy her anything), talking back, and refusing to sleep with him because he smelled. In short, she was expert in passive-aggressive resistance — and often got her own way in the end.

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