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Writing Backward: Modern Models in Historical Fiction

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Just wondered about everyone's thoughts on this.  It's an older article, but makes some very interesting points.

http://www.hbook.com/magazine/articles/1998/jan98_macleod.asp
#1 - June 25, 2010, 10:17 AM

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From the article:

"And therein lies the difficulty I find with these — and many other — historical novels of the last twenty years. They evade the common realities of the societies they write about. In the case of novels about girls or women, authors want to give their heroines freer choices than their cultures would in fact have offered. To do that, they set aside the social mores of the past as though they were minor afflictions, small obstacles, easy — and painless — for an independent mind to overcome.

"...many narratives play to modern sensibilities. Their protagonists experience their own societies as though they were time-travelers, noting racism, sexism, religious bigotry, and outmoded belief as outsiders, not as people of and in their cultures.

"Didacticism dies hard in children’s literature...The current pressure to change old stereotypes into “positive images” for young readers is not only insistent, but highly specific about what is the desirable image, and often untenable. If the only way a female protagonist can be portrayed is as strong, independent, and outspoken, or, to take a different example, if slaves must always be shown as resistant to authority, and if these qualities have to be overt, distortion becomes inevitable.

"What is at stake here is truth. It can’t, of course, be true, and wasn’t, that all or even most slaves and women rebelled openly, let alone successfully...A literature about the past that makes overt rebellion seem nearly painless and nearly always successful indicts all those who didn’t rebel: it implies, subtly but effectively, that they were responsible for their own oppression. Most people in most societies are not rebels; in part because the cost of nonconformity is more than they want to pay, but also because as members of the society they share its convictions.

"Historical fiction writers who want their protagonists to reflect twentieth-century ideologies, end by making them exceptions to their cultures, so that in many a historical novel the reader learns nearly nothing — or at least nothing sympathetic — of how the people of a past society saw their world. Characters are divided into right — those who believe as we do — and wrong; that is, those who believe something that we now disavow. Such stories suggest that people of another time either did understand or should have understood the world as we do now, an outlook that quickly devolves into the belief that people are the same everywhere and in every time, draining human history of its nuance and variety.

"But people of the past were not just us in odd clothing. They were people who saw the world differently; approached human relationships differently; people for whom night and day, heat and cold, seasons and work and play had meanings lost to an industrialized world. Even if human nature is much the same over time, human experience, perhaps especially everyday experience, is not. To wash these differences out of historical fictions is not only a denial of historical truth, but a failure of imagination and understanding that is as important to the present as to the past.


These are the parts of the article that really resonate with me. I found Charlotte Doyle and Catherine called Birdy, to name two, absurdly implausible when they were first published, to the point where I just couldn't like either one at all. Once I presented at an SCBWI conference on historical fiction, and talked about creating characters that were true to their times, not true to OUR time. I think my reception, especially from the editors present, was mixed, yet a few people came up to me privately and thanked me for saying it. Taking people with modern sensibilities and plunking them into an earlier time isn't characterization, and it's not historical fiction. It necessitates all kinds of skewing of the historical society into something it wasn't, sometimes literally in order to save the rebellious (so many of such stories center on rebellion) MCs' hides. It conveys an arrogance that we and our ways are better, and people could have fixed the ills of their day if only they were more like us. It promotes not respect or understanding of times past, but disrespect and puzzlement. Ah well -- this is one of those "don't get me started" topics. Didn't we have a soapbox smilie?
#2 - June 25, 2010, 10:57 AM
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mrh,

I get what this author is saying but like others you mentioned, have mixed feelings about it.  I keep thinking about all the great historical fiction books I've loved - where would each story be without those exceptional characters?  We read Sarah Plain and Tall and Charlotte Doyle every year in fourth grade, and the kids love them and I think, get a great feel for the periods of each story.  When I read stories like this, I don't think about the improbability of Sarah picking up and heading west on her own, or Charlotte taking over the ship at age thirteen.  The characters are so big, the fictional part of the story so well-drawn, that I just get sucked into the story.

The article did make me stop and think, though, and I'll probably read with a keener eye (and ear).  I can see where historians have a problem with the way writers handle this genre, but for me, I think story trumps all.     



   
#3 - June 26, 2010, 06:39 AM

Our personal filters can blind us to some of the realities that the article describes. My mother (born in the 20's) grew up on a dairy farm and loved the duties with the cows, milking, being out in the fresh air with the cows, and having her own calf to raise for 4-H. She so fondly remembers her farming childhood, I had no problems believing that Sarah of SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL had time to lie in the fields and make daisy chains. My mother did!

I'm in a women's montly book club where Jillian, one of the members, a retired mathematics professor born in the U.K., is a stickler for getting historical novels right, and if not, pointing out all the glaring offenses. The worst was YEAR OF WONDERS: A NOVEL OF THE PLAGUE, which concerns the bubonic plague in England, 17th c. based on the actual village that imposed its own quarantine to protect neighboring villages. From a literary writing standpoint, the novel is breath-taking. Geraldine Brook's use of the language is rich and evocative, and we ache for the suffering of the ill and dying, especially the children. BUT ... the modern feminist sensibilities and plot contrivances get so far-fetched, I got pulled out of the story and didn't need Jillian to tell me what didn't work. And the reviews on Amazon.com are mixed because although many people loved the book, a lot of people are disappointed with the unrealistic parts, especially the far-fetched ending. (I was also disappointed that although the historical minister of the village appeared to be heroic, championing the quarantine and dedicated to his family and his parish, "her" minister is a lout in, for example, how he treated his wife, and in other ways that didn't seem realistic. I got the feeling the author dislikes Christians.)

So yes, even though for many people "story will trump all", it's worth mentioning that if you don't get the historical sensibilities right, despite the other historical details, a lot of people will regard your novel as a fantasy rather than a peek into the world of that era.
#4 - June 26, 2010, 08:14 AM
« Last Edit: June 26, 2010, 08:18 AM by hazelnut »

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What Marcia said.  With all respect, story can't trump all in historical fiction, or else it stops being historical fiction and ends up as fantasy. That said, however, I can handle characters doing things outside their cultural norms when it's made clear that doing so is difficult/frightening/otherwise not done lightly.  And honstly, it can be a wonderful source of internal conflict for the plot.  So in one of my books, I have a girl dress in boy's clothing to go do some spying...but instead of thinking "I feel so free!" she's deeply uncomfortable at not having skirts covering her legs, and her brother, who is skulking about with her, has to remind her not to walk like a girl.
#5 - June 26, 2010, 08:16 AM
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where would each story be without those exceptional characters?  

But, you see, I hear this as "Those time periods didn't have exceptional people of their own, they need people with OUR sensibilities injected into them to make a story." Meaning no disrespect -- how could it be that we can't create exceptional characters that were people of their own times? That's a lot like saying story wasn't possible until we came along.

When I read stories like this, I don't think about the improbability ... I just get sucked into the story... I think story trumps all.    

Of course a lot of stories contain varying degrees of implausibility, and some of it bothers us and some of it doesn't, depending on how blatant, how important to the story, and whether we have the background knowledge to spot that particular problem. But to continue with the Charlotte Doyle example, the degree of implausibility destroyed the story for me. I couldn't suspend my disbelief. In such cases I can't GET sucked in, and the story has no chance of trumping because for me it disintegrates. In other words, there's a point where story can't trump the elements that built it. And I do think we have some responsibility in historical fiction not to teach a disdain for earlier times that says, "Why didn't they just throw off the shackles, get a clue?" Why would we think the same couldn't someday be said about us?

So in one of my books, I have a girl dress in boy's clothing to go do some spying...but instead of thinking "I feel so free!" she's deeply uncomfortable at not having skirts covering her legs, and her brother, who is skulking about with her, has to remind her not to walk like a girl.

Fantastic example!
#6 - June 26, 2010, 11:45 AM
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Wow, svz, this is one of my favorite articles, one I sometimes make my students in a YA Lit class read. Glad you posted it! Even though I disagree with some of it, particularly McLeod's assessment of Catherine, Called Birdy (and I'm a medievalist), I still love the ideas in the article. I was definitely thinking about those ideas when I was writing The Book of the Maidservant. One of my primary goals was to do the opposite of what I was seeing in so much fiction set in the Middle Ages. That is, I wanted to present a character who didn't have 21st century sensibilities, but who reacted to things with a medieval mindset, in the same way Marissa talks about with her character's reaction to wearing pants. I have the same reaction to implausible situations as mrh describes: they take me right out of the story, making me lose trust in the author. The past is a foreign country, and writers of historical fiction have a responsibility to guide their readers, helping them sympathize with characters whose worldviews are very different from our own.
#7 - June 27, 2010, 06:50 PM

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But, you see, I hear this as "Those time periods didn't have exceptional people of their own, they need people with OUR sensibilities injected into them to make a story." Meaning no disrespect -- how could it be that we can't create exceptional characters that were people of their own times? That's a lot like saying story wasn't possible until we came along.

Marcia, I see what you're saying here, and I agree 100%:  exceptional characters within the social strictures of their time.  This is the part I was thinking about:   "Most people in most societies are not rebels; in part because the cost of nonconformity is more than they want to pay, but also because as members of the society they share its convictions. Most people are, by definition, not exceptional."

What Marcia said.  With all respect, story can't trump all in historical fiction, or else it stops being historical fiction and ends up as fantasy. That said, however, I can handle characters doing things outside their cultural norms when it's made clear that doing so is difficult/frightening/otherwise not done lightly.  And honstly, it can be a wonderful source of internal conflict for the plot.  So in one of my books, I have a girl dress in boy's clothing to go do some spying...but instead of thinking "I feel so free!" she's deeply uncomfortable at not having skirts covering her legs, and her brother, who is skulking about with her, has to remind her not to walk like a girl.

I agree here, too, Marissa, and like your example, also.  I do see similar situations in the books this author has mentioned, though - those characters determined or forced through situations in the story, to act outside the normal frame of society for that time, while at the same time noting its exceptionality.

This article and your comments have definitely made me do some thinking. 

Sharon

       
#8 - June 29, 2010, 08:30 AM

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An excellent article. I've noted this too, in a number of books that I otherwise thoroughly enjoyed; that the characters (or at least the sympathetic characters) seem to have stepped straight out of a time machine from the 21st century, spend the whole book talking (or trying to talk) the other characters into embracing more enlightened modern ways, and on the whole end up telling us more about the author's attitude to matters of life, love and faith than they do about the attitudes common to people at that time.

Which is not to say that historical characters can't (or shouldn't) question why things in their world are the way they are. It's not to say they can't do something that others find shocking or outlandish or wholly unprecedented. But these things need to be handled in a way that is plausible given their upbringing and society, and the challenges and consequences that attend their unusual behavior need to be historically plausible too. They can't just get a free pass because the author doesn't feel like dealing with the unpleasant parts of historical reality (or at least doesn't feel like inflicting them on that character).
#9 - June 29, 2010, 10:07 AM

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I completely get where this article goes, and it seems that every historical has a spunky heroine tired of living by the rules. (my historical fantasy, out with agents now, has a heroine who sticks to the rules most of the time, but she's still exceptional. It was fun to write!) I can see how that would become annoying and tiresome. On the other hand, I think in certain time periods that sensibilities were so far off from what we have today that the character might seem unrealistic. Kids may have a hard time understanding (not that its not a great teacheable moment!)

A character should be relateable on some level to the audience. Maybe some writers feel that their characters aren't relatable if they draw them completely accurate to the time period? I also think that in certain periods, if a character doesn't break with tradition just a little bit, there won't be much of a story - I mean, women's lives in the 18th century weren't exactly brimming with excitement. Even Laura Ingalls Wilder broke with tradition a little in her life, which is part of what makes her story so interesting.
#10 - August 28, 2010, 07:02 AM
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How did I miss this thread?

The past is a foreign country, and writers of historical fiction have a responsibility to guide their readers, helping them sympathize with characters whose worldviews are very different from our own.

YES. I hadn't thought of it in this way before, but it's true. If you were writing a character from a different ethnicity from you, wouldn't you want to have it accurate, not just you with a different colored face? Wouldn't it be reasonable for people to be sensitive to how you portray that character? I agree that sometimes I've been sucked into a story despite its implausibilities, but more often than not, I've been annoyed by the author's social agenda dressed up in historical clothing. I don't like being preached to in my books. :) I think there WERE spunky heroines "back then" as much as there are now--but they were spunky in a way that made sense in their time. (I had the same reaction to Year of Wonders as others did with the whoa, implausible plot turns.) The two elements especially that seem to be trite ways to inject the 21st century into history are the whole women's rights thing and also religion, which usually comes across as a quirky, old-fashioned sort of sensibility, if not downright limiting and dangerous. Whenever I do find a book that manages to handle these things in both a believable way for their time and a relatable way for our time, I just cheer. Kevin Crossley-Holland's Gatty's Tale (UK title)/Crossing to Paradise (US title) did really well with this, I thought. Gatty is a gutsy character who does stuff, but in a way that is reasonable for her time. And the faith aspect was really well done, too, IMO. You can always tell when an author understands what faith is all about.

It's a delicate bridge, being true to the "then" yet accessible to the "now."
#11 - August 28, 2010, 07:25 AM

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