What I wish I would’ve known about Historical Fiction’s public perception

“It must be so easy for you,” said my friend.  “With Historical Fiction, you already know how the story’s going to end!  You don’t have to world-build, or anything like that.  I bet you can just spit out this story in no time at all!”  My friend then went on to say that they were considering writing Historical Fiction, because it would take less time than the High Fantasy they had already finished.  I just shrugged and tried to change the subject, but later on I wished I would have mentioned some of the things I know, and some of the errors my friend had made.

So, I’m here today to clear up some misconceptions I’ve heard about writing Historical Fiction.

  1. You Already Know How The Story’s Going to End
    Kinda.  I know how the big stuff will end – deaths of the monarchy, battles, royal births, etc.  That being said, a LOT (and I mean a LOT) of history is still shrouded in mystery.  Birth dates of girls, non-inheriting and non-royal sons, etc. are generally not recorded.  Once you go past a specific point in history, a lot of people aren’t recorded – my own MC’s mother, for starters, isn’t mentioned at all.  Ever.
  2. You Don’t Have To World-Build
    Not in the sense that I can simply Google “Map of Burgos” and it pulls up a map of Burgos, Spain, but that doesn’t really help for a layout of the medieval city.  I don’t get a sense of the city without cars, and I have to estimate how long it would take someone to ride to a city by horse.  I also can’t just make things up: I have to make things up that make sense not only for the geography, but the time period and its limitations.  I can’t have a Gothic cathedral similar to Notre Dame in 14th century Sevilla.
    I also have certain social conventions to which I must be true.  If I’m writing about a court, I have to know (or be reasonably sure of) the etiquette.  I have to know how one person would address another, the different titles for different levels of nobility, what is considered “modest dress”.  Also, to be frank, I don’t want my MC to be the 21st-century-gal in 14th-century-clothing, so I can’t have Constanza refusing to marry a guy without a seriously good reason.  Slavery, executions at the whim of one person, sickness that could wipe out the entire world in one fell swoop – those are all things I don’t need to fear, but are pretty “normal” to the era I write.  A society that believes one woman led to the downfall of all humankind, that’s not something to which I’m accustomed, but it’s not only considered normal but is ecclesiastical (and sometimes secular) law in the Middle Ages.  It may not be world-building in the traditional sense, but it is world-building.
    As an added element, I did have to “character-build” as well.  My characters don’t have any surviving, personal documents – no letters, no diaries, and sometimes not even wills.  What I know about them comes from glances through other people: the mention in a father’s will, the minor paragraph in a husband’s autobiography, the mention of a bastard child.  Everything else, I have to invent.
  3. Historical Fictions Are Quick & Easy to Write.
    No.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that, and it drives me insane.  Perhaps Historical Romances aren’t considered difficult to write, mainly because previous authors didn’t care about accuracy (I remember reading one based on a certain “New World Princess”, and it was all wrong.  Well-written, but so very wrong), and they do tend to have a formula to them, but I’ve noticed the trend toward researching has gone upward in the past few years, so I’m hopeful.
    My research for La Bastarda took a year alone.  I didn’t have access to primary documents, so I spent significant amounts of time checking and double-checking what I would find, and rewriting certain parts of my notes in order to have the most accurate depiction of my time period.  I don’t know how many times I wrote and re-wrote the main family trees in my series, just so I could keep people/birth dates/birth orders in line, or how many times I looked up “head coverings 14th century”.  I spent a week alone on forms of address for the nobility.  I listened to accents, I looked up Old Castilian, I looked up sumptuary laws, I plotted paths and homes, and that was before I even put pen to paper.  It took a year – and that’s a relatively short amount of time for research.  Once I started writing, I learned there was even more I’d forgotten to research, so I’d absolutely have to look stuff up – and it took me a year to write/edit/rewrite La Bastarda, and I’d have to say over half of that was research.
    Seriously, research.
  4. All You Have to Do is Add a Little Sex and It’ll Sell
    True, but I don’t write Historical Romance.  I have no desire to write a ‘bodice-ripper” (as I lovingly call them), even though I may enjoy them.  La Bastarda has exactly one passage that mentions sex outright, and a few passages with awkward sexual hinting in regards to one specific (antagonist) character – which I actually chose to do on purpose, considering I found a few places where it was mentioned said antagonist named one of his daughters “Constanza”.
    Personally, I dislike writing sex.  It goes back to when I was younger and I wrote erotic fanfiction (in my defense, we were at the sexual awakening stage of life) for friends, and I was told I was “too good” at it.  I knew exactly where someone would kiss, how they would touch, etc.  I had learned it from books, funnily enough, but it didn’t matter, and I was called names and gained a reputation that followed me through school and turned both peers and certain teachers against me.
  5. All Historical Fiction is Romance
    This kind of ties in with the above, but it kind of doesn’t.  I’m not drawn to romance unless it has what I believe to be an interesting subplot or fills a particular niche.  If my stories have any romantic tones at all, I fully admit it’s because of or to drive the main plot.  That being said, I think the series I’m writing is very much driven by my MCs’ loves for their kings, though not always in the way one would expect – and not always the most obvious King.
  6. It Stifles Creativity
    And here we come to the crux of the situation, and why most people I know strangely seem to think I took the easy way out.  Creativity to them is inventing languages, or entire cultures, drawing maps of continents that don’t exist on this planet and claiming them as my own.  To them, writing historical fiction is cheating, something I do because I’m not creative enough to imagine my own world.  Sure, I may write, but to them I’m not a writer.
    And you know what?  I will probably never be on the same level as Tolkien, Rowling, or GRRM.  I’ll probably never write books of several hundred pages, discussing dragons and wizards and epic journeys.  I’m never going to be that kind of writer.
    And that doesn’t make me any less imaginative.  I read about a person in a history book and I want to know more about their life.  I wonder about their relationships, their hopes and dreams, their conversations.  I wonder, and it drives me to write.

So, hopefully, if you’re a Historical Fiction writer and you’ve heard these things, I’m hoping you take my words to heart and don’t get down about your love for this genre!  I remember how much it used to hurt me until I realized all of these things were true.  🙂

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