1. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    How hard is writing historical fiction?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by BlessedbyHorus, Jan 4, 2015.

    To me it seems like one of the hardest if not most hardest genres to write. I've almost wanted to write this fictional story where the setting is medieval Sahel Africa. What's been stopping me is that I would need to do a truck load of research. The setting I am aware of(didn't just choose it because it seemed cool) and nothing new it. I researched a lot about its history, but still... You have to get the clothing, language they spoke, justice system they had, food they ate, weapons they had, culture,etc,etc,etc correct. On top of that African history in general is not that well displayed(excluding Ancient Egypt of course) and sources that I am looking for is hard to find.

    So I ask is there anyone here who has or has tried to write a historical fiction? If so how would you rate the difficulty? How much research would be needed? And for dialogue can you write it in modern English?
     
  2. BayView
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    BayView Contributing Member Contributor

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    I've never written historical fiction, for the reasons you outline - the research is a hell of a lot of work.

    That said, I love reading it! And as a reader, I think you want to be careful about using modern English. Most things in your story should be historically accurate (all the things you mentioned), but language and, I would say, characterization get a bit of poetic license. Language b/c they weren't speaking English at all, given the setting you've established, but we translate their words for them. That said, I think the translation should have a distinct flavour, not be contemporary English. It's great if this flavour can be based on the actual language and culture of your setting (like, if you discover that people in that culture thought cats were filthy animals, you could make your swear words cat-related. If they were constantly at war with the people of place X, your swear words could be about dirty Xians. Whatever).

    And you didn't ask, but the other area where I think we can take a bit of poetic license is characterization. People in different cultures in the past actually thought quite differently than a modern westerner does. I think it can be fascinating to write a story from that perspective, but I also think it's allowed to cheat a little and have the character conform a bit more to modern expectations. Like, your hero shouldn't be a racist, sexist, asshole just because pretty much all men in his time period were. Make your hero be the exception!
     
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  3. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    Very good post! And yeah I think language is the most challenging part.
     
  4. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    You can take some freedoms, I think. Most historical novels, movies, and TV shows do. Some people will tweet their ass off about it, but a good story is still a good story, and small inaccuracies don't cause it to crash and burn. Most readers probably won't even notice them! Furthermore, we don't know everything for sure when looking that far in the past. When you read articles about historical sites, events, cultures etc. there's always the "this suggests..", "it is possible...", "archaeologists believe..." disclaimer anyway.

    That's not to say you shouldn't be ambitious. If you indeed have genuine interest in the time period and area, research should be fun. It's not really work then, is it? ;) I personally love the research part, as it also gives plenty of plot and character ideas.

    I've heard it has taken years for some writers to perfect the setting as close to real life as possible, with the detail and accuracy scientists are able to determine based on their findings, but no one has so far complained about the amount of work they've done because, really, they've enjoyed it so much.

    Good luck!
     
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  5. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Modern English is probably going to be the widest readership, especially compared to Medieval Sahel. However, as suggested by @BayView, it would make sense to adjust your use of language to inject some flavour of the time and place. One of the things that I hate in Fantasy is that the setting is generally Medieval European while the language is Modern-day Colloquial American.
     
  6. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    I would guess it's as hard to write as any genre that you don't know anything about.

    Regardless of the genre, whatever you write has an element of research to it. Whether or not you choose to devote 10% or 90% of your time on research, is up to you.

    I write about a place I've never been to. I have characters whose language I've never spoken and who have jobs I've never done. They get up to things I can only dream of and finds themselves in situations that I would never find myself in if I lived my life over, a thousand times. But it works because of the amount of research.

    @Shadowfax is spot on with the language thing too. It might not seem a big thing but to a reader, getting those odd few words correct (in my case, things like trash/rubbish, taxi/cab, mobile/cell, jumper/sweater) makes all the difference.
     
  7. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    @jannert
    @EdFromNY
    They both write historical fiction and are excellent writers - maybe they could give you some advice :)
     
  8. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    To sum up what a fellow historian on a history forum I'm on said: history is all about, "We don't know." We can say for certain that this or that happened, but for everything else, we honestly don't know. Here is what I've learned about this genre:

    (1) Research by watching documentaries, reading the history books (fictional and non-fictional) and looking at the pictures/paintings to get a clearer idea of what society looked at the time. Obviously King Louis XIV didn't look like a colored painting, but if you want to see what he and other French royalties at the time wore, paintings like that are a great place to start.

    (2) As with any other genre, you don't have to research every little minute detail. If your character is using a cologne from France, we don't need to know the make and company unless you really want to show us. Get the basics of your time period down and research what will work for your story.

    (3) Have fun with it. Don't get so bogged down in research that you forget to write. Remember, you're writing historical fiction. The readers will know by and large that your characters and your plot aren't real, so they won't pitch a fit if you have one of them attending the court of Tsar Peter the Great where they speak to the man himself.

    (4) As for the language thing, well I've read historical fiction that were set in cultures that clearly didn't speak English, but the text (prose and dialogue) were in English. I understood that this was just for the authors' personal preferences and the characters weren't really speaking English.

    Have fun! And good luck!
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2015
  9. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    (2) As with any other genre, you don't have to research every little minute detail. If your character is using a cologne from France, we don't need to know the make and company unless you really want to show us. Get the basics of your time period down and research what will work for your story.

    This is a really good point. If you are going to the n'th degree because you want to detail something, make sure you get it right, double, triple check and check again a few months later because there's nothing worse than getting an email from a reader saying "how can your MC's parents use Guerlain cologne on their son's dead body when he dies in 1812 and Guerlain wasn't founded until 1828?"

    Luckily, my faux pas got picked up by both me and my editor and it was nothing to do with perfume!
     
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  10. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I remember writing an early draft of my historical mystery and posting it for review. One of the comments said basically, "Um, why do these tables have metal legs? This is set during the Revolutionary War, correct? That metal would've been stripped out to be melted down into musket balls."

    Needless to say, I corrected that mistake immediately. Good thing it was just a draft and not a final product. :p I shudder to think about what a published author of historic fiction must feel to get an email saying that this or that detail was incorrect.
     
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  11. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I agree with this. Seeing modern day colloquial language, and particularly phrases that clearly came into being long after the time period will just kill a piece of historical work for me.
     
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  12. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    Like DaVinci looking at one of his inventions and mumbling "that's the best thing since sliced bread!"

    :-D

    Seriously, it's quite amazing how many mistakes you can make very easily when working with dialects and languages that you are not familiar with. I'm really lucky in the fact that I do have a few American friends and two Italian friends who can put me on the right track with certain phrases and traditional customs.
     
  13. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    You must be referring to the invention he designed immediately after his automatic bread-slicing machine!
     
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  14. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    That's the one! AKA 'Toaster with large enough slots for sliced bread'!
     
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  15. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    One thing I've discovered is that the closer your chosen time period is to the present day, the more difficult the research becomes! Why? Because there is so much MORE information out there, and so many more people who are going to catch a mistake. However, the upside is that there is a lot of information available. I mean, if you're writing a book set in the USA in the 1950s, and you want to show your characters having breakfast, that will be relatively easy to do. There are cookbooks, TV shows, catalogues, personal memoires, and many people still alive and kicking who can describe what breakfast was like back in those days.

    If you're writing about a family having breakfast in 17th century Amsterdam, you will have less to work with, and a lot of imagining to do. What you'll find is that there are plenty of facts about kings and queens, battles, political events, social upheavals, religious conflicts and other such events in 17th century history, but finding the social history will be a lot more difficult. You'll be frustrated because you'll find information that's almost right. Breakfast in 18th century Amsterdam. Breakfast in 17th century Paris. You'll end up pulling your hair out in little tufts, and then winging it to some extent.

    If you're writing about a family having breakfast in the Stone Age, you'll probably find it relatively easy, because nobody knows for sure. You can make up a large part of this sort of thing based on very basic research. And nobody much is going to rise up and point the finger at you because you've made mistakes ...unless they are glaring ones. I don't imagine they ate Pop Tarts or fried bacon in cast-iron frying pans....

    There are lots of people who write novels set in historical periods. Some do meticulous research, some just skim the surface. Some readers want absolute veracity, others just want a good story.

    I have always told myself I will never KNOWINGLY make a mistake. If I find out that some bit of research lore I've uncovered is faulty, or that I've written something that couldn't have happened the way I wrote it, I change it. That's not to say I don't make mistakes, but I don't say ''oh, it doesn't matter," and keep going regardless. That would drive me nuts as a writer. If I discover a mistake, I need to alter the story to accomodate it. That's my philosophy anyway. Mind you, I'm writing about a relatively recent period (1886) so lots of other people would catch anachronisms or mistakes.

    As far as language goes, I write my characters as real people. I feel they would talk and feel the same way as we do, in general. However, I don't use ANY slang, and avoid any phrases that sound modern. I'd never have a character in 1886 say to another one "I don't have a clue." Instead, the character would say "I have no idea." It makes exactly the same point, but the first example is quite modern, while the second one is more generic as to time period. I believe 1880s people were more formal than we are today in formal situations, so my characters watch their tongues around authority figures. However, they unbend a lot when sitting at the kitchen table with their friends.
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2015
  16. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    Wow... A LOT of good responses here. Too much for me to take in at once. :)

    IMO I think this is going to be the hardest part. From translates done on historical Sahelian writing, it seems they and everyone else spoke in an old English. I know this from reading a English translate from one of the writings by a scholar named Ahmed Baba when he was taken away.
     
  17. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Do you mean:

    Historical Sahelian writing (in Sahelian) : translated into English by Ahmed Baba : Baba's translation is in a style of English that we would regard as old.

    When did Baba undertake the translation? - Was it at a time when "old" English was the norm?
    What was Baba's education? - Might there be some reason why his English was more archaic than you'd expect? Or less fluent than you'd expect?

    Certainly, I don't see that you can generalize about language in old Sahel on the basis of a translation into another language.

    It would be interesting, actually, to see a short extract of Baba's translation.
     
  18. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    Here are some other thoughts I have.

    - Who is your audience? If it's strictly English speakers, then have the characters speak English. If I wrote a story set in Ancient Rome and had the whole text be in Latin (assuming I knew Latin at all), you can see how the book will not sell well in the general market. Sure those who are into the Latin language would get a kick out of it, but Average Joe or Jane? Who couldn't speak Latin if the world was at stake? They wouldn't want to buy it. Remember, your readers are not stupid. They'll get that the characters are not actually speaking in modern-day English, it's just written that way so the modern-day English speakers can read it and enjoy it.

    - Are you trying to teach history through a story, or just entertain? I stopped reading the Didius Falco books long ago not because they were all speaking English in what was clearly an Ancient Roman setting, but because it felt too much like she was lecturing me about Roman history rather than telling a story. Some enjoy this style of writing immensely, others do not. I read books to be entertained, not to sit through a history lecture. If I wanted the latter, I'd go to OpenYaleCourses and tune in on one of their lectures. Or read a non-fiction book about the period.

    - As @jannert said, be sure to keep your characters as authentic as possible. It's very easy to trip up and accidentally write a character as if he/she were a modern-day person transplanted into historical times. Your historical characters don't always have to be 'thee', 'thine', 'thou' and 'let us depart therein to thine house, O' Wise Man of Thistleton and let us feast on your roasted duck as we listen to the melodies as smooth as the stream'. They just need to feel like they actually belong in the time period you're writing them in. This means in short: look at the world as they saw it then, don't inject 21st-century morals and ideas into it because...they didn't have them yet! What we believe in now wasn't the social norm back then.

    Now let me confuse you by saying your characters can, in fact, be very forward for their time. Not everyone in any given historical period were racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic bigots. They were, however, a minority if the social norm was something they absolutely disagreed with.
     
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2015
  19. Drmoses
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    Drmoses Member

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    I've pondered this undertaking on numerous occasions and one thought constantly overrides all else.

    Could I write off my "research" costs on my tax return; especially if said research included a trip to England, for example???

    I think that if the answer is yes, I might suddenly become inspired to write a few historical fiction pieces!
     
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  20. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    The character Jason King in the TV series of the same name certainly tried to write his travel expenses off against tax for that reason!
     
  21. cutecat22
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    cutecat22 The Strange One Contributor

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    I thought exactly the same about a trip to NYC.

    The trouble is, I need the money to pay for the trip in the first place before I can put it on my tax return! :)
     
  22. BlessedbyHorus
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    BlessedbyHorus Member

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    For the bolded, yes.

    As for timeline, if I remember correctly it was around the 14th, 15th or 16th century. Definitely around Shakespeare time. So I shouldn't say "old English", but instead "middle English." The reason I said old English, is because some people refer to his plays as "old English" compared to today's English. And I agree we can't generalize an entire language of a people baed on one translation.

    As for the Ahmad Baba quote, shoot for some reason I can't find it. Its been a while since I read it. Anyways I can give you quotes/translation by people who visited Sahelian kingdoms/empires like Ghana, Mali and Songhai, but note they range from 12th to 16th century...

    "Thus was laid the foundation of an urban civilization. At the height of its power, Mali had at least 400 cities, and the interior of the Niger Delta was very densely populated."-Sergio Domian, an Italian art and architecture scholar

    "The negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice

    than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence."- Ibn Battuta

    And then you can read this to get more of an idea.
    [​IMG]

    ^^^The above quotes/translations to me sound like middle English. Those are what I have for now.


    1. The audience is English speakers. Which is why I asked would it be taboo if I used modern English.

    2. Story is mostly entertainment, but it will have a historical theme to it.

    3. I agree. I will have to be careful to not make him/her to modern, especially considering I have not wrote a historical fiction before.

    As for the bolded I agree 100%.
     
  23. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Keep in mind that the purpose of the research is to ground your story appropriately in the given time - that is, to make your setting as accurate as possible. The vast majority of what you learn won't make it into your story, but it's important for you, the writer, to know. Good historical fiction isn't about history, it's about using the history as a backdrop, placing your characters in a certain place and time and telling their stories. There is nothing wrong with including historical persons as characters, but in my view this should be done sparingly. In my own historical, now undergoing final editing before I begin querying, I have done this, but I've been careful to avoid taking too many liberties and learned as much as I could about the historical persons before writing.

    There have been some very fine novels about specific historical persons - Gore Vidal's Lincoln being one of the best - or of specific historical events - Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels. Works such as these require painstaking research in order to get the details correct. My own favorite historical novelist, James Michener, would go and live in the place he was writing about because he believed that much of his characters' stories flowed from the locale (an editor of his once told him, with approval, "You make the land a character in your work.").

    I would also add that it's important to keep your characters' interactions realistic within their historical contexts. Back in the mid-1970s, John Jakes wrote an eight-volume series (marketed at the time as the Bicentennial Series) entitled The Kent Family Chronicles, in which the various generations of one family managed to hobnob with Ben Franklin, participate in the American Revolution and the War of 1812, be present at the Johnstown Flood, the Chicago Fire...ad nauseum. It was so painfully contrived as to be laughable.

    @jannert's comments about research are spot on. My novel runs from 1510 to 1994. Material on the early 1500s was very sparse, while anything from 1800 on was voluminous. However, while having more material to work with meant more person-hours spent on research, in my mind it also gave me much more comfort that I had what I needed. Also, written research in later years is often supplemented by photographs and novels (the social history that jannert mentioned as being lacking in historical works tends to show up in novels of the period). One of my beta readers noted that I had included a lot more historical material in my earliest chapter than in all the ones that followed, and a professional consultant pointed out that I needed to flesh out my characters in that earliest chapter, whereas I didn't need to do that in the later ones. That lack of social history was the reason. I had to fill in a lot of blank spaces with conjecture. Fortunately, one can research, separately, things like furniture, fashions and table manners. Just don't expect such things to appear in general histories.

    I'll also echo jannert's advice on writing in modern English while avoiding any modern idioms or slang. If you can discover slang from the time period about which you are writing, that's great, but use it sparingly and make sure the reader can understand what is meant.

    Good luck!
     
  24. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, you can amortize them over 5 years. But only against the earnings from your book.
     
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  25. Drmoses
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    Drmoses Member

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    So I can't have a job, write a book that earns nothing, then claim the trip expenses vs. my general income? Well, that brilliant tax evasion scheme is out the window! Good to know should the dream ever come to fruition though!
     

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