Writing Historical Fiction: Elissa's Perspective
Hello, everyone! It’s Elissa here. In today’s research log, rather than talking about a particular subject re: the Victorian era, I want to dig into the concept of writing historical fiction in a general sense. In other words, this is a research log about the act of research more than it is a research log about any particular fact we’ve investigated. A caveat, of course, is that I’m not the world’s most experienced writer of historical fiction. This is written from the perspective of someone who’s still learning — but that, I hope, is exactly what will make it useful to those of you who are also still learning.
With that being said: onward!
The visual novel formerly known as the webcomic formerly known as Green Carnations sort of tumbled out, from my perspective, without warning, and certainly without much concern for how it fit into the greater context of my tastes and abilities as a writer.
What I mean by that is twofold. One, I’d never given much thought to writing historical fiction. A few years ago much more so than now, I subscribed to a particular notion along the lines of the common advice “write what you know” that insisted that I should write only about things I (more or less) already knew — research was entirely too daunting (even when it came to topics I was already somewhat familiar with) for me to want to undertake the process of researching a place and time I had only vague, often inaccurate, and highly stereotyped notions of. And while there were some periods of history which had always intrigued me — I was almost worryingly obsessed with the Great Depression as a kid — I didn’t have any particular knowledge of the Victorians at all going into this project. So the idea of writing a historical fiction piece set in London in the mid-to-late 1800s made no sense to me, in a vacuum.
And then, secondly, my experience with scriptwriting was limited to a few projects in high school, mostly skits. My writing style is not, by nature, dialogue-heavy; in a lot of my other writing, I tend to rely heavily on extensive internal monologues, depictions of characters’ thought processes, descriptions of minute changes in a scene-partner’s expression, and so on, not only for depicting what’s going on physically and mentally, but for characterization, personality, motive, and message. These things obviously aren’t completely absent from scripts, or from whatever the final product of the script will be — in our case, originally, a comic, and now a visual novel — but there is much less room for them. I couldn’t just hand Ingrid a novel and say it was a script; I’d have to instead learn a whole new way of writing, or, at least, learn to write dialogue (and minimal other description) strong enough on its own to take the place of all the other stuff I have always leaned so hard on.
...but I digress; that’s a whole other research log, probably. To return to the matter at hand: Of Sense and Soul (nee Green Carnations) is not really the kind of project I would have ever predicted I would undertake, and therefore I started out sort of bumbling my way around in a dark room, with no idea where to even find the light-switch. After a little initial bumbling, though, I was at least able to start to find my way to the beginning of the historical fiction process. It took a little while, but eventually I started to ask the right questions.
Question 1: Where do you even start?
We realized early on that the learning curve with regard to the research would be high. I couldn’t have even put dates on the Victorian era at first, at least not beyond “probably the late 1800s?” (though Ingrid came in with a fair bit more knowledge, to her credit). So naturally we had a lot of reading to do, and that represented a significant impediment in getting the project off the ground. The end result, which Ingrid and I have touched on in previous devlogs, is that we really ended up at least running the risk of doing too much. My fear — or, really, our fear, as I believe it was very much shared — of baking historical inaccuracies into the world, plot, and characters of our story, or of creating something which would read as hilariously wrong to anyone who knew more than we did (and there were, and still are, many people who know much more), really ended up taking over a little bit and preventing us from just getting started.
There were other factors, too, of course — we were both incredibly busy with school, and often creatively drained because of it. But really, that fear and determination to get everything exactly right ended up being a fairly great impediment, especially considering that, as I eventually came to realize, no one is ever going to get it “exactly right.” None of us today have lived in the 1870s; we can try our very hardest, and spend years and years poring over every book and primary source and photograph and museum collection in the world, and I don’t doubt at all that we’d still screw it up somehow, in some small way.
And, even more critically: even the most thorough research doesn’t need to be completed before beginning the project.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean we’re just moving forward willy-nilly with no regard to history at all; we’re still interested in presenting an “authentic” setting and characters who hopefully feel true-to-life. But historical fiction isn’t just history, and if the story we want to tell requires that we bend certain elements of the setting a little, then so be it.
Question 2: How much research is enough research?
As Susan Alleyne points out in the introduction to the seminal Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders (third edition), “[historical fiction] writers all make mistakes… There’s probably not a historical novel anywhere that doesn’t have some errors or anachronisms in it” (p. 2). On the other hand, Alleyne spends the rest of the book walking through various common errors and how to avoid them, as well as providing general guidelines for how not to write (and research for) historical fiction — in other words, she’s not exactly speaking on behalf of handwaving, winging it, or otherwise failing to do your due diligence. Quite the contrary, in fact.
The necessity of research in writing historical fiction is, hopefully, patently obvious, but if you’re not careful, I think it’s all too easy to run into the trap that we spent a little while caught in: being so worried about research at the outset that you fail to actually do so much as outline your story. In the modern era, there is an almost endless font of knowledge available on nearly any time period you could ever wish to investigate, and if you’re sufficiently scared of inaccuracy and anachronism, there’s something of a natural tendency to feel like you need to know absolutely all of it.
The problem with that, of course, is that you can’t possibly ever know all of it — and even knowing most of it is the kind of process that takes years and years of your life, during which time you are not actually creating historical fiction.
So then, where do you stop?
All right, that’s a bit of a misleading question, actually, because I don’t think you ever do really stop — at least not until the book is to print, the movie has premiered, the game is released, or whatever (and maybe not even then — that’s what second editions/director’s cuts/patches are for, right?). It’s less a question, really, of when you stop researching than it is a question of when you start creating. Creating itself is an act of learning and discovery; it’s not as though picking up the pen forces you to put down the history books.
What’s ended up working for us is as as follows. We read a lot. A lot. We watched documentaries. Ingrid was lucky enough to get to travel to the UK, and in particular to visit some living history museums. We knew what our premise was, and the general strokes of our story (or the un-researched version of it, anyway — in other words, we knew parts of it might need to change, but we had a starting point to guide us), so we were able to conduct this initial research into slightly more specific areas, but I don’t think that’s actually necessary at the outset. Getting a big-picture understanding first, if you don’t already have one, is going to be essential to figuring out what your plot can and can’t entail.
Once you have a general understanding, then you can develop a plot. And once you have a plot, you’ll probably have a much better idea of what particular areas to dive into in much greater detail, and you won’t feel quite so much like you have to know everything about everything. As a great big obvious example: you needn’t waste time researching the finer points of court life if your characters are all going to be middle-class people in the countryside.
And then, once you have an outline that can stand up against historical fact, you can do what I’m currently in the process of doing: as you complete your first draft, any time you’re about to reference an object, person, place, turn of phrase, daily task, or anything else, and you’re not absolutely sure — based on previous research, not other historical fiction, and definitely not assumption — that it’s historically factual, go and look it up. At the very least, if it’s not going to have consequences later, highlight it and make a note to yourself to look it up later, when you’re editing. Susan Alleyne is big on this; don’t assume is one of her cardinal rules, and while I may not be quite an expert on historical fiction yet, she definitely is. Don’t assume.
Inevitably, there will be another round of research during the editing process, too, but I think those three big steps — before you have a plot, after you have a plot, and while you’re developing your draft — are, at the very least, a good place to start. And while I’m sure plenty of people do it in a different way, this is the method that’s worked for us!
Which brings us to our final question:
Question 3: What about ‘period-typical’ racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.?
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we’re writing an LGBT-focused visual novel. (Surprise!) We’re also writing about female characters and characters of color. Now, the issue here isn’t “Did these characters exist in the time period?” This is a ridiculous question: of course they did. They certainly did in Victorian England, and regardless of the particularities of your setting, I promise you, they did.
Unfortunately, however, what also existed in most settings — as is discoverable with minimal research, in most cases — is a completely different mindset from the modern day when it comes to women, people of color, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, people who existed outside whatever the dominant religion was for that time and place, and so on, and so on. In a lot of cases, we might recognize those attitudes as bigotry today; in some cases, they may simply be unrecognizable or foreign. But, in most every case, the reality is that approaching gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc. in historical fiction the same way you would in contemporary fiction is going to feel strange at best and laughable at worst.
But does that mean you have a “duty” to represent the harsher realities of life in the past? Is it historically inaccurate to tell a story about queer people, for example, that has a happy ending? Or to write about women who are bold, (somewhat) independent, and confident? Or to depict characters of color being successful, respected members of their communities?
In case it’s not clear, these are all examples which directly relate to Of Sense and Soul. There are dozens of other external examples which spring to mind, some of which may be directly related to your own work, or works you’re familiar with. Regardless of the particulars, my answer to this question is the same: write the story you want to write. Even if your characters have to work against the system to be happy, doesn’t working against the system sound like an interesting basis for a story?
Of course, you may need to temper your vision a little bit based on historical reality, at least if you want to maintain a claim to ‘realism’ or ‘accuracy.’ What I mean by that isn’t “Don’t make your queer character happy,” it’s “Recognize that happiness for a queer character in 1600s America/1870s London/Ancient Rome/Qin Dynasty China/whatever is going to look different than happiness for a queer character in [your current place and time].” I can’t write about Seamus and Hugo coming out and getting publicly married and adopting a child, for example, even if those things are a hypothetical picture of ‘happiness’ for a queer person in America in 2019. Likewise, I can’t really write about any of my female characters waking up and deciding that they want to wear pants, and they’re going to demand to work in men’s jobs, and they’re not going to touch another stove or sewing needle as long as they live. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make them happy — it doesn’t mean that their wants and needs can’t be fulfilled. I just have to learn a little about what options might have been available to those characters in that time and place, and then get creative. And isn’t getting creative the whole reason we’re doing this to begin with?
So what’s next?
Maybe the most important thing of all to realize is that the journey, for all of us, is far from over. I certainly don’t feel like I know all there is to know about writing historical fiction, but I’d wager that even people who are far more experienced than I am would agree that the learning never really stops. Making the effort to do a good bit of research at the outset, and throughout the creative process, may help prevent common, obvious pitfalls such as realizing mid-script that you’ve gotten basic rules of etiquette wrong and need to rewrite all your dialogue, or even coming to the conclusion that basic elements of your plot don’t make any historical sense, but you’re never going to catch everything. There will always be a few details that slip by, or a word in your dialogue that hadn’t been invented yet, or whatever else. The conclusion that has been most useful for me, I think, in this whole process, has been to acknowledge that these things will happen, and then try to do my very best to prevent them anyway… and then acknowledge, again, that they will happen, and that that doesn’t mean that I have to give up on the entire project because I’m a failure.
So, to leave off on a positive note: keep writing! And keep researching. And above all, keep your wits about you, because you never know when a historically-impossible potato is going to creep onto your pre-Columbian British dinner table, or the wrong sort of undergarment will be described on your lady’s girlish figure, or...
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