Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Party All the Time

Or, The Joys of Writing Historical Fiction


First off, my thanks to Joan Schweighardt for coming up with this idea and to Anjali Mitter Duva and Kristen Harnisch for agreeing to take part. The essence of the plan is that each of us writes a longer blog post on her own, as well as a 250-word summary that we will publish as a group. Normally, I would post my entry on Friday, but this Friday is April Fool’s Day—and when it comes to writing historical fiction, I’m not fooling. Hence the atypical Wednesday post.

So what are the joys of writing historical fiction, from my perspective? I see many, but I’ll focus on three: familiarity, research, and escapism (mine and the readers’).


“Write what you know”—it’s a clich√©. But it doesn’t always mean write about your home town or the life you experienced as a child, never mind thinly disguised versions of your current friends and office mates (who may not remain friends and colleagues if they read your fictional take on them). History is what I know—Russian history in particular. Long before it became my profession I loved to study it, to read novels based on it, to write essays of my own. For decades, I did not intend to write fiction of my own, but once I did stumble onto the idea for a novel, the lure of my chosen historical field—so rich and so foreign to most people in the West—made it the logical choice for my novels as well. Noblemen and peasants, bandits and warriors, blood feuds and raids, coups and invasions and arranged political marriages: was there ever a place more naturally dramatic than Russia? Half the time, I don’t even have to make things up (although that’s fun, too)!


Of course, research is work. Many authors don’t like it—although more do than you might expect if you have never attempted historical research yourself. For me, it’s what I do, even when I’m not writing novels. And research for a novel is different from researching an academic article. I don’t have to master (or appear to have mastered) all the existing literature or spend years in the archives; I dont need to produce an academically defensible position that gives due credit to those who came before while sketching out an argument that is uniquely my own. But I do need to create a plausible world filled with characters who belong in that world, which means immersing myself in all kinds of details of everyday life and—more important—learning about the specific ways in which different types of people thought about the world, themselves, and their place in the universe. Researching a novel can be frustrating—even in the Age of the Internet, a novelist can’t always uncover essential details of clothing or utensils or even food and drink, never mind smells and tastes—but it can also be tremendous fun. When I stumbled over the tale of Abbot Trifon of Pechenga’s bandit past, for example, I couldn’t wait to include it in The Swan Princess. I had to redo the entire plot of my novel in progress, but I wouldn’t have missed that opportunity for anything.


Here I have in mind several related meanings of the word. Most obviously, escaping into a previous century in a distant place offers relief from everyday worries and troubles for both readers and writers. But the escape into history also opens up possibilities for fiction that our technologically sophisticated modern world has closed down. Yes, human emotions have not changed for millennia; only the cultural constraints that provoke specific emotions vary from one place and time to another. And placing oneself in another’s shoes, whatever the time period, holds out the potential for enjoyment; the modern world is not uniform, and even today we see many different philosophies in play, have many chances to experience the viewpoints of fictional people unlike ourselves. Contemporary life contains plenty of space for rage, resentment, grief, agony, and that life blood of fiction, misunderstandings.

But strip the world of cellphones, computers, DNA tests, police and fire protection, NSA-type security, and even basic literacy—never mind such things as respect for women and minorities—and a writer acquires many more options for spreading confusion and stoking the fires of conflict. Characters can disappear into the woods, take justice into their own hands, lie about their paternity (or even maternity), raze cities to the ground, retire to monasteries, force their children into marriage, impersonate dead rulers, consult witches and sorcerers, poison their enemies with untraceable toxins, leave fingerprints that no one knows can identify them, and much, much more. Letting one’s imagination roam free is cathartic, and so long as it remains on the page, it does little harm.

I could go on, but those are three great pleasures of writing historical fiction for me. What makes historical fiction special for you?

For the others’ posts, see Spelunking from My Desk, Or Why I Love Writing Historical Fiction” (Joan), “Reaching the Pinnacle of Joy and Wonder in Historical Research: A Six-Part Swimming Metaphor” (Anjali), and Writing the Past: The Devil Is in the Details” (Kristen). And while you’re there, don’t forget to check out their books!

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