My good friend Monica McCarty had a fascinating post on the Fog City Divas blog this week about “The Not So Romantic Side of History.” Monica, who writes wonderful historical romances set in early seventeenth century Scotland (and with whom I sometimes take research trips to the Stanford Library), wrote “As an author I’m constantly faced with how much reality to infuse in my stories and still make them appealing to the average historical romance reader….When I sit down to write or read a historical novel I really want to get a sense of the age, not only to enhance my understanding, but also to put the conflict in context. For example, without understanding the social barriers in “Pride and Prejudice” a reader wouldn’t understand why it was such a big deal that Mr. Darcy proposed to Elizabeth Bennet. Actually one of the things I really liked about the Keira Knightley movie was the grittiness and dirt—we really saw the “country” girl in Lizzie and I really got a sense of her social distance from Darcy. Another de-sanitized costume drama is “Queen Margot” which is a VERY gritty look at 16th Century France.”
The follow-up discussion was fascinating (do check out it and Monica’s great post). In formulating, my own response, I thought a lot about historical novels and world building, the choices one makes an histroical novelist about what to details to focus on, where and how to shine the light on the historical era one is trying to bring to life. Writing historical ficiton, I definitely feel I have more freedom to dwell in the darker, grittier side of the Regency era than I did when I wrote historical romances. As I discussed in my recent blog on History Hoydens on “The Dark Side of the Regency“, in “Secrets of a Lady” I knew I wanted Charles and Mélanie to have to leave their jewel-box perfect life in their Berkeley Square house and scour the dimly -lit recesses of the London underworld. As Charles learns the secrets behind Mélanie’s perfect-wife façade, I wanted him and Mélanie to explore the dark corners behind the elegant façade of Regency London. I tried to paint on a wide and detailed historical canvas, showing different levels of Regency society (the theater, the slums, the Marshalsea debtors’ prison, a gaming hell, a brothel), weaving in information about the political situation in Britain and in post-Peninsular War Spain and the lingering ideological divide of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. I might have used all those things in an historical romance, but I would have sketched with a much lighter hand so as not to pull focus from the love story.
But every historical novelist, whether she or he is writing historical romance, historical fiction, historical mysteries, adventure, etc… has to choose which bits of the past to include in their novel, where to throw the empahsis, what parts of the world to show. In that sense histiorical novelists are world builders just like fantasy and science ficiton novelists (actually every story-teller is a world builder to a certain extent; think of the difference between Woody Allen’s New York versus Carrie Bradshaw’s versus Martin Scorsese’s). Depending on which details the author chooses that world may be more or less close to historical reality or to certain pieces of historical reality. I think the most interesting historical fiction says something both about the time in which the book is set and the time in which it is written.
What level of reality do you like in the historical fiction you read? Does it change if the book is an historical novel versus an historical romance versus an historical mystery? And be sure to check out the latest entry in the Fraser Correspondence, David’s reply to Charles’s letter of last week. In the spirit of discussing historical context, David talks about the East India Company’s new charter, among other thngs.