The devil’s in the detail: writing historical fiction

I was reading a blog the other week where the writer was discussing the difference between what she called, ‘wallpaper historicals’ and those where the characters behave in ways consistent with the period in which the story is set. It was in the context of romantic fiction, which my great-grandmother’s collection aside is not something I have much interest in, but I think the discussion is equally relevant to any kind of historical fiction. It also relates to the broader discussion of whether or not meticulous historical accuracy is essential.

A wallpaper historical (wonderful term BTW) is apparently a novel where the characters are essentially dressed up modern characters, who behave as modern people would, and events/details are painted in the broadest of broad brushstrokes. There may be a built in assumption that the writer has done most of their research from other historical novels rather than original sources. I think the degree to which one finds this believable writing depends on the depth of one’s knowledge of the period in question. For example, there are numbers of feisty, independent minded medieval heroines getting their man in a way that would leave most medieval women gob-smacked. This sort of thing has happened to such a degree that sometimes the reality has become unacceptable. An American acquaintance of mine is having great difficulty in getting her YA medieval novel published because the heroine is thirteen when she gets married as a result of an arrangement. As she said, but that’s what happened in medieval Wales! I’ve certainly winced my way into one or two Jacobite swashbucklers or Victorian detective novels. How far I get is usually dependent on a subtle equation that balances the number of winces against the PTQ of the book.

If one’s intent in writing such a story is simply to provide an entertaining escapist fantasy then I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with writing such novels, although my personal view is that one should always take more care. And while it can often be hard to put one’s own cultural sensibilities to one side, even where one is aware of them, I do believe it is worth making the effort, however hard it might be. My own aim is to present a story that the reader with a reasonable knowledge of the period can accept might have happened, while remaining true to what my research has indicated happened. If that means going against what is culturally believed to have happened then so be it.

It can be equally hard to provide the reader with background information. I’m currently reading a crime novel set in ancient Egypt and in order to provide the reader with the necessary information about the royal family, there are constant conversations between characters of the type, “As you know, Ramose, our great Pharaoh’s father was etc.” I hate that sort of thing – it’s sloppy. But I think that’s another post.

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