The History They Knew

"Remember the law of Moses."
Malachi

I talked in It Was Not History Then about avoiding the unconscious mistake of making the historical period you are writing about seem too novel to the characters.  Now I am going to talk about what was history for them, and how to incorporate that into your novel.

First of all, you have to know your history.  A character can't know what the author doesn't know.  I don't think I have to engage in the whole "history is fun, really it is" spiel.  I think just about everyone following The Penslayer already has a deeply abiding love of history and is willing to go out of the way to learn it as a matter of enjoyment, not just a matter of research.  To write a novel in a time period, one does often have to do research; to incorporate history into that time period, one has to know a lot more: one has to have, essentially, the entire range of human history to draw from.  Moral of the story: don't confine yourself to a single period of history in which to study.  Learn everything you can!

Note: as a caveat, keep in mind that while you may have that vast range of knowledge to draw on, your character might or might not depending on his education.  An illiterate man may reference Aesop's Fables, but he will probably not draw conclusions from Plato's Republic

Pertinence.  You would be surprised the pertinence of historical happenstances on the circumstances in a novel.  I found a few quiet ones cropping up in Adamantine; in Plenilune I had to practically sit on a character to keep him from snapping off names and places, old, unhappy, far-off things and battles long ago.  Many got through, and I left them (which also returns to a point I raised in It Was Not History Then), but they arose because the character's brain was awash with histories and peoples - as well as philosophies and theologies, fables and riddles and whathaveyou.  If the shoe fit, he put it on.  If the moment corresponded to something that had happened in the past or former generations, or a comment linked with a thought of a great man who had come before, he made the connection. 

Note: my brain is also awash with histories, people, philosophers, theologies, fables, riddles, and whathaveyou, which gives people the confused impression, as everything is thrown into my mind and out again in a hapless jumble, that I am more intelligent than is really the case.

For those of you writing historical fiction, please don't despair!  It is a true saying that history repeats itself.  The more history you learn, the more you will find things happening in your stories that resemble, however unintentionally, problems and solutions that man has faced in the past.  If you keep your eyes open, you'll see them.

Note: for those of you who may be thinking this is an exercise good only for writing, let me disillusion you.  A steady and wide study of history is also a study of God's work with man, and I have continually found it helpful in life to be able to hold up history to God's self-revelation in the scriptures and discover what the two can tell me together. 

4 ripostes:

  1. Interesting, Jenny! Very thought provoking!

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  2. Brilliant post, Jenny! This topic has been tumbling around in my mind for some time, but you explained everything so simply and put the facts in a new light. You've inspired me to take a new approach to historical fiction in future. :)

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  3. Wonderful! And I read your complimentary post (which I liked so much that I'm going to link to it HERE so anyone else can read it, 'cause it's really good - and it's title is "We In It Shall Be Remembered," which is just an awesome title because it comes from an awesome speech, but everybody knows that already), so I'm doubly glad that I could help jar some things out of your brain. Your post is longer than mine. I have a feeling you've thought longer and better on this than I have. I just waggled my gun in the general direction of the target and blew, hoping the chaos would hit something. :P Cheers!

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  4. Such a splendid post, Jenny! And one that works well with my current place as I write and research for my new novel, 'A Love that Never Fails'. Also, Sarah took note of the post too (though I still have to see if she read it, and I know she'll love it thoroughly). You know of course that I write historical fiction and love it just as fiercely. But sometimes, it can be a bit discouraging, trying to fiddle about with all the ins and outs of events set within the lives of the characters that it can feel somewhat discouraging and wearisome after a while when one wishes he could pull out bits and pieces of history from thin air and write without hitting a rock continually in reference to 'did such and such [event] happen in September 1940, or December 1940 and if so which date will fit into how the story goes?' (or), 'was the Flavian Amphitheatre built during Nero's persecution? If not, how and where does [so and so] get martyred publicly?' (or) 'What were the duties of a tribune who was the son of an aristocratic Senator in Rome during the early second half of the first century?' and then the realization that the facts contradict the plan of the story - *sighs* it can be a bit 'tricksy', especially when one is unable to lay hands on the right resources and history books and needed information in reference to the times one is writing in. For example, I have found it very difficult to find history books that speak much about the early second half of the 1st Century in Rome, which has been a real trouble as I write 'The Crown of Life'.

    Writing history as in culture and tradition and way of life and in detailing the life and history the characters lived is probably one of my favourite aspects of writing historical fiction though. That is just about the best part :D. I took particular note of what you said about not confining oneself to a single period of history in which to study, but to study the history that my characters themselves had to study and learn and know about. Such a good point!

    'A steady and wide study of history is also a study of God's work with man, and I have continually found it helpful in life to be able to hold up history to God's self-revelation in the scriptures and discover what the two can tell me together.'

    This sentence stood out to me strongly. For one thing, Sarah has often said the same thing, and for another, I whole-heartedly agree with you.

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