authenticity in historical fiction, author Elizabeth Bell, Necessary Sins by Elizabeth Bell, novels featuring slavery, novels set in antebellum Charleston, novels set in antebellum south, purpose of historical fiction, role of historical novelists, transporting readers in time and place
Elizabeth Bell and I met at HNS 2019. She is the author of the Lazare Family Saga, the result of a quarter century of research and revision. I’m delighted to host her on the blog today. Over to you, Elizabeth.
After moving from Colorado to Virginia, I happily began visiting my new state’s many historic houses and museums. Yet this history buff found herself reluctant to visit Colonial Williamsburg. I had mistaken it for a Disneyland version of my nation’s past.
Fortunately, I was wrong. Colonial Williamsburg programming portrays American history in all its diversity and complexity while also catering to tourists. You can choose to take a carriage ride down the restored Duke of Gloucester Street or follow a costumed tour guide on foot. My tour guide directed us around a manure pile freshly deposited by a carriage horse and warned: “Be careful you don’t step in the authenticity!”
That’s great advice for the streets of Colonial Williamsburg. It’s terrible advice for historical novelists. While admiring all the lovely clothing and architecture of the past, we should be tramping around in authenticity and inviting our readers to join us.
We might actually mention the manure our characters pass by or stumble into—the unpleasant sights and smells that make up their world. But it’s even more important that we don’t sanitize our characters’ thoughts and actions. Our protagonists shouldn’t be dropped in from the 21stcentury.
This is especially true for the main setting of my series, the slaveholding American South, which has been portrayed as “moonlight and magnolias” for over a century. It is reprehensible to romanticize a society in which human beings were bought and sold. But it’s also irresponsible if all the good characters in our fictional American South know instinctively that slavery is wrong. In these characters’ world, slavery was normal, defended in the papers and from the pulpits as a positive good. “My protagonist is enlightened and ahead of her time” is dramatically dull and teaches us nothing.
Instead, I prefer to explore how the lies have been drummed into my protagonist. Early on, he’s regurgitating those lies. This runs the risk of making him unsympathetic to a modern audience, but it’s essential that he possess a true 19th-century psyche. His conscience will begin to trouble him, and this will be part of his character arc, but he won’t become “woke” overnight. Another point-of-view character, my protagonist’s great-grandmother, remains an unrepentant racist till the day she dies. She’s not supposed to be sympathetic, but she is supposed to be human.
In real life, I faint at the sight of blood. In my fiction, the Haitian Revolution changes the destiny of my fictional family. Most of the violence happens “off stage.” Yet readers have called my Haitian chapters “intense”: “You don’t pull any punches.” It would be dishonest to depict one of the bloodiest and most sadistic wars in human history without any gore.
Similarly, an agent rejected my novel because she “found the descriptions of how they treated slaves painful to read.” Did she expect reading about slavery to be fun? I infuse my fiction with as much humor and happiness as I can, but I refuse to sugarcoat slavery. I want my readers to feel everything my characters do, including the painful parts.
One of my favorite comments from my editor is that my series “really feels like a fully formed, accurate, compelling world, warts and all.” Only when I’d given my protagonist a birthmark—which is incidental to the story—did he begin to feel real to me. Only when I realized my 19th-century heroine would have hairy armpits did she begin to live and breathe. By revealing the past in all its ugliness or simply quirkiness, especially those aspects that make it distinct from the present day, we make our stories both more authentic and more memorable.
As historical novelists, we are tour guides and teachers. Like the tourists who visit Colonial Williamsburg, many of our readers will never crack open a history book. Consciously or unconsciously, our readers will take our portrayal of the past as Truth. We do them an enormous disservice if we’ve whitewashed that truth. We’ll have given our readers a pleasant fantasy, but we will have taught them nothing. If we don’t make our readers think, if we don’t make them at least a little uncomfortable, we’re not doing our jobs.
Great advice, Elizabeth. Many thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Necessary Sins by Elizabeth Bell ~~ In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with doubt, his family’s secret African ancestry, and his love for a slave owner’s wife.
Joseph Lazare and his two sisters grow up believing their black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother—until the summer they learn she was an African slave. While his sisters make very different choices, Joseph struggles to transcend the flesh by becoming a celibate priest.
Then young Father Joseph meets Tessa Conley, a devout Irish immigrant who shares his passions for music and botany. Joseph must conceal his true feelings as Tessa marries another man—a plantation owner who treats her like property. Acting on their love for each other will ruin Joseph and Tessa in this world and damn them in the next. Or will it?
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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, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.