...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."