Monday, August 4, 2008

Motivations for Writing Historical Fiction

Ever wonder why an author of historical fiction chooses to write about a particular era?

I suppose there are a lot of reasons. Some might be commercial--an author casts about for a topic or event in a time period that is enjoying a current craze, or picks a historical character that bookstore browsers will instantly recognize and want to read more about. Faced with several possible subjects, the author picks the one that she is most certain will sell.

Other reasons are personal. Perhaps an author knows something of his family history and wants to explore the time or setting or events that affected his ancestor's life. Perhaps he traveled to a place and became fascinated by certain aspects of its history. Perhaps she learned a lot about the history of an era or place for a different reason (an academic degree, perhaps? :) ) and decides to explore what she knows in a completely different way, by writing fiction. Perhaps the reason remains elusive, other than a writer feels a certain affinity for a time or place and desires to recreate it for others. Some might ascribe this to past lives or simply intellectual curiosity. In any case, to write historical fiction that fully engages the reader, that makes her feel as though she has escaped her own time for a spell, the author must feel a passion for what he is writing about.

I often wonder why I am so absorbed by the sixteenth century, France in particular. I think I explained in an earlier post how I fell in love with France on the day of my very first French class in eighth grade, at the age of twelve or thirteen. I devored Jean Plaidy novels and spent hours outside of class studying French. The highlight of a whirlwind high school tour of Europe for me was the Loire valley and its châteaux. I still remember standing in a window in the gallery at Chenonceaux, staring out over the river rushing beneath me and wishing I had lived then. I thought the love story of Henri II and his mistress Diane de Poitiers, represented by the intertwined H & D's that one sees everywhere at Chenonceaux, was the ultimate in romance. (Now that I'm a middle-aged matron myself, I feel much more sympathy for Henri's wife, Catherine de Medici.)

Not able to get enough of French, I decided to major in it in college and then went on to earn my doctorate. In graduate school, one is required to specialize in a particular century. For me, it was a struggle to choose between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (with a bit of competition from the nineteenth century--I love those long novels by Stendahl and Flaubert). I remember one professor asking why I wanted to specialize in the sixteenth century and not medieval (of course, he was the medieval specialist trying to convince me to join his field). He pointed out how the medieval era is so much more feminine--the whole play of chivalry and fin amors, the importance of the Blessed Mother--than the sixteenth, with the rise of the state, the revival of classical literature, voyages of exploration and imperial wars. It's true, at first glance I would seem to be more drawn to the medieval era. But something about the sixteenth tugged at me. I think it's the amount of questioning that went on, the upsetting of long-held world views and the dawn of a new age, arrived at, ironically, by studying the past. I've always been fascinated by the religious conflicts of the time, especially the fact that people were willing to disrupt their families or actually die for their beliefs. I know these things happened elsewhere and at other times, but the combination of these issues with the amazing architecture and exquisite art of the era was just too strong for me. I felt too comfortable with the medieval mindset; I needed examine my own religious and philosophical beliefs alongside the curious and courageous men and women of the sixteenth century.

The literary critic in me can't help but wonder what underlying issues prompt a writer of historical fiction to choose certain topics, and on a broader level, what needs in society fuel the waves of popularity. Why, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, does the Tudor era hold such fascination for people? Is it the religious thing, a yearning in an age when many people write religion off entirely, to read about people who had to make life-threatening decisions about it? Is it the divorce issue, people looking for parallels or justifications for today's easy divorce? Is it the astounding wealth and rampant materialism that speaks to us? If I had to choose dissertation topic again, I think I would look at different eras in history and see what historical subjects were popular with readers of the time and why.

Anyway, I love to hear the stories of how authors fell upon, or chose, their topics. If you write historical fiction, tell us why you're working on the topic you are. If you're a reader, what do you most enjoy reading about and why? If you're a lurker, please come out of hiding. I'd love to meet some of the people who frequent the blog but haven't commented. I promise I won't bite. Pull up a chair and share, newbies and regular commenters alike. There is much here for discussion.


Anonymous said...

For me, there's something about a strong female lead, in Diana Gabaldon's Claire or in Sharon Kay Penman's Eleanor of Aquitaine. I really don't see it as living life vicariously through them, it's more that in todays media I've had enough ditzy blondes to last a life time! P.S. Lurkers, she may not bite, well not real hard, but you should see her with a rapier! As always, a reader, not a writer :) Renee

Rachel said...

Hi Julianne,
Well, for me, it's been a life-long love of history, honed to a fine point by my study of early modern French history as part of my University degree. Here in Australia, to study law you are first required to start (then complete) a degree in another discipline. Bolstered by my three years of French language at high school (with a real French teacher, Madame Edith Lazonde) I chose an Arts degree, majoring in history, as my supplementary degree, and promptly fell in love with nineteenth century France, especially Paris, helped in no small degree by my lecturer, Professor Austin Gough, who had the phenomenal ability to make the past come to life. Zola, the Goncourt brothers, Flaubert, Victor Hugo, George Sand, I loved every French author he recommended, and was (and still am) fascinated by those times. My professor passed away a decade ago - if ever I am am fortunate enough to have my book published, his name will be the first I list in my acknowledgments!

Sheramy said...

Hi Julianne (and all),
I wrote about van Gogh because well, I love him. :-)

I'm also intrigued by why certain eras/subjects are popular at certain points in time in historical fiction. What's up with all the Jane Austen knockoffs, for instance? A deepset craving for a return to an era of grace and gentility, in an age where good manners have largely gone by the wayside? And the Tudors...and the Knights's really interesting how certain things just 'catch on.' Some of those authors, I'm sure, have a real passion, while others jump on the bandwagon.

Margaret Donsbach said...

I've loved reading historical fiction for as long as I can remember: it's a window into a different world where people often think very differently, but feel much the same as we do today.

But I first felt drawn to write historical fiction after reading about Iseult, the ancient Irish princess who might also be considered a professional woman, because she was known for her skill as a healer. More recently, I've become fascinated with medieval Germany, partly because my ancestors were German, and have written a novel based on the great medieval German epic poem Das Nibelungenlied, currently in the hands of my agent.

Sixteenth century France sounds like a wonderful setting for a novel. When it's published, I look forward to listing it at my Historical Novels website,

Julianne Douglas said...

Renee--good point about a strong lead character. Gives a whole new meaning to the notion of "escape literature."

Rachel--What a shame your professor won't be able to read your book. And I'm with you--I love long, detailed 19th century novels. That's the one hesitation I had about specializing in 16th--narrative fiction was just beginning to take off, but only in the form of collections of tales. No novels to speak of. Maybe that's why I like writing novels about the sixteenth--to fill in the gap! Anyway, I hope your novel writing is going well--I remember reading great snippets of it in the past. Do you have a website?

Sheramy--Interesting about Jane Austen. I never particularly liked her, so I haven't really kept up with that craze, but you're probably right about the yearning after gentility thing. Or maybe nostalgia about courting instead of dating or "hooking up"?

Margaret--Your novel sounds so interesting! I remember reading selections of the Nibelungenlied in my German lit survey class. I'd so like to read your book. There doesn't seem to be much HF about Germany at that time. I hope your agent is able to get a quick sale for you.

And everyone, check out Margaret's website, particularly if you're looking for a good book to read in a particular period! It's a wonderful resource.

Tess said...

History has always been a passion of mine as well. Like you I studied it at university (MA) and specialized in the French Revolution. But I also love stories with happy endings, hence my choice (for now) of historical romance. But my stories are heavy on the history - I love the research and finding ways to unobtrusively slip in period details.

Like you, I gobbled up pretty much everything JP wrote, so I also have stories set in the Middle Ages. Even as a kid I wrote short stories with historical settings.

As for reading HF and HRF, I enjoy being swept away to another era, losing myself in times past.

Julianne Douglas said...

Tess--I was never terribly into the French Revolution until I read Catherine Delors's novel. Now I'd love to learn more about it. I do remember discovering that you can actually read Revolutionary newspapers on microfiche. That was pretty neat.

Catherine Delors said...

Thank you, Julianne! As for me, I only studied law in college, and stumbled onto the French Revolution much later, after a seemingly random conversation with my father. The problem, though, when you choose the Revolution as a setting is that the happy ending may not always be easy to incorporate into the plot...

For anyone looking for source documents on the topic (and reading French) there is a wonderful resource online: Transcripts of the Revolutionary Tribunal trials, newspapers, debates at the Assembly, the National Convention, the Municipality of Paris, the Club des Jacobins.

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks for the resource, Catherine. Off to check it out...