It Was Not History Then

...it was Aristotle, long before Kipling, who taught us the formula, 'That is another story.'
Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis

I know a lot of you tend to write fantasy (there is so much scope there for the imagination) I also know that many of you have tried or are trying your hands at historical fiction as well.  In light of that, I thought I would share a little trick I learned and also point out an obvious but often overlooked fact.

The fact first, and that is that, to the people in the time you are writing, their time was not "historical" yet.  It was as plain, unlovely, and dull as every day of your life can be to you.  Obviously, you will be writing an engaging story in which things happen, things are at stake, and the reader will be invested in the lives of your characters and their time period.  But a really accurate historical fiction novel will make the time as real and as common as the shirt you are wearing.  The well at the corner of this road and that in ancient Rome is not a novelty to them.  It's their way of life.  The drafts in the castle, the pigs in the yard, the papyrus stands and Lord Crocodile and a gentleman's horse are all common, everyday sort of things.  Don't make much of them with the eyes of someone writing from the twenty-first century looking back on the past.

This was something I was taught subliminally through the novels I read growing up.  The ones I liked most were the ones that felt real, and looking back on them critically I see they were real because they did just this: they treated the time with a casual nonchalance, taking for granted that it was Now and would always be Now.  Oh, there was always the future to be provided for and a vague, glorious past to replicate, but the way of life would go on and the things of life would endure forever, familiar, unnoticed, and strangely precious.  If you want to know how to write like this, it is very simple: you have only to study the time so thoroughly that you become fluent in it, like a language - so that, essentially, you think in that time.

The trick I learned was a kind of sleight of hand, a sort of trick of magic that was worked on me by the author.  A really good author who so well knew his or her time period could drop at appropriate times a reference to something - a line from a Roman poet I had not read, or an object from far-off orients that was hitherto unknown to me - and the author, far from telling me the poet's name or telling me where the object came from, would leave me otherwise ignorant.  To the people in the story it was obvious.  To me, I was left in the dark, suddenly a stranger looking in from the outside.  I never minded.  Even the entire conversation in French in one of Sayers' short stories (my French was never good, and has almost degenerated away), while it left me clueless, was at the same time so off-handedly accurate to the time and the characters that the very act that jarred me away from communion with the story made the story all the more real in its own right.

I know a lot of people will tell you, "Don't talk about things the reader won't understand or associate with.  He won't like ignorance or being left in the dark."  That is, of course, often true, if the topic is handled badly.  But it can be handled well, and if we all pander to the ignorance of each other no one will learn anything.  It's a bad sort that takes natural ignorance as an insult.  We're all ignorant until we're taught, and we might as well own that cheerily now.  The fact is that I let the poet's line go, hidden in my memory, and I accepted the oriental treasure as a matter of course, and as I continued reading in other books from now and then and here and there, I stumbled (almost always inadvertently) over the answer, over the poet, over the place.  And my sudden joy was indescribable!  I felt like someone who had learned the trick of magic.  Suddenly that novel was not a stand-alone - it was linked with this book wherein I found the answer to the riddle.  Suddenly Sutcliff and Uncle Aquila were linked with Everyday Life in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Times.  Suddenly two seemingly disconnected pieces of the infinite dialogue of writers were put together, question and answer.  And I would not give up that moment of discovery for anything.

They say, "Show, don't tell."  But I say, "Don't show everything.  Let the reader, if he's really worth his salt, discover for himself."

5 ripostes:

  1. Wow. This....this is the sort of thing that led me to read all the classics. I kid you not. I would read allusions to other authors and stories and quotations in one old book and that lead me to another and another till I was drawn in and forever entangled in the world of prime literature.

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  2. Rachel is right. This post is great, Jenny. As you know me to write historical fiction, I love the thing of immersing and marinating my stories in the historical times they're set in. But sometimes I just forget that for the characters, that is not an archaic, weird gone-by history--it is dull, normal life! As you said, it is not history for them :). You said, 'you have only to study the time so thoroughly that you become fluent in it, like a language - so that, essentially, you think in that time..." That's what I am trying to do and I love learning the language of history and it becoming a part of the world I live in with my characters, but to be honest, once I get all the information through my gleanings of history, I sometimes seem unable to well translate my random bits and pieces of knowledge (that Nero may well have poisoned Claudius Caesar's son or that the Flavian Ampitheatre was not built until so and so A.D....) and dropping it at the appropriate times throughout the novel as reference to that historical something so that it blends and weaves its way like REAL life and not forced and random... do you have any tips or advice to give on how to incorporate the history one learns into ones' story?
    I am sorry if this comment doesn't make much sense :/

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  3. Yes, yes, yes! You've hit the nail right on the head. That conscious historicalness, if you can call it that, is something that gets under my skin, and has made me shy away from some recently-written historical novels after reading a sample. This is one of the reasons I really love reading old books, both for pleasure and for research—you can't match the actual flavor of the times that comes through when you read a book written during those times. The details of domestic life, the way people spoke, everything. When you find an author who had a real gift for capturing life as they saw it, it's like having a window to the past.

    And like you, I enjoy reading something that's strewn with literary and cultural references—it gives you the fun of either guessing at the meaning by their context, or that lightbulb moment when you learn what it meant later on. Reading Dickens has been fun in one respect simply because it provides the explanations for all those references in Little Women (I don't think I've identified them all yet!).

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  4. This is so true. I love how old books incorporate so much literature and history that was so well known then and nobody knows anything about now. Not to mention all the French and Latin people used to use even just a hundred years ago. The biggest problem with historical fiction is usually how they don't use those allusions that were so familiar to the period. And yes, let your readers discover for themselves--one of the best writing tips ever.

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