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Writing in the Past

Thanks to Amy for the great review today in Passages to the Past at Amy is also the wonderful lady who put together my virtual book launch party back in May, which you can see at Let's talk about historical fiction as a genre. I did a post a while back (“What is Genre, Anyway?, 21 March 2020), before the book was released, in which I talked about the various genres under which The Rose and the Whip falls, and why I thought each of them appropriate. But this is something I keep struggling with even months after the release. Historical fiction requires the plot of the novel to take place in a setting in the past. Simple enough, and indisputable. But in writing in the past (as distinguished from the past tense), the author is obligated to represent if not emulate social conventions, speech, visual details, etc. in order to present a believable narrative. Here’s where historical can conflict with fiction, and sometimes this requires a trade-off—historical accuracy (historicity) for a compelling story or vice versa. I pointed out to a colleague, after reading a recommended contemporary historical fiction novel, my disappointment in the author’s use of modern vernacular, i.e., words or phrases that were not in use during the period covered by the book. She explained that author’s make a conscious choice to do this in order to reach a more contemporary, and thus wider, audience. I understand, I do, but I disagree. When I set out to write The Rose and the Whip, I made a conscious choice to use words or phrases if not typical for the period, at least available. For example, I avoided using words which had not come into existence, at least according to Oxford and/or Merriam-Webster, until after the 1670s. I agree the manner of 17th century speech is difficult enough to read without having to stick within the boundaries of writing, but I tried to at least leave the flavor. And I think for the most part I succeeded, and have thus far not received too much criticism. With respect to the other element of historicity, my research was exhausting. I was blessed with a compelling story, and thus only added thoughts and dialogue to fit the events, this alone making it fiction. As I begin working on my second novel in earnest, I’m faced with the opposite problem. This one will have plenty of historicity, and it will cover a much broader period—12th century Britain to 19th century America—but it will be more fiction especially because I am not blessed twice with a compelling story. This one has to be crafted from the outline of my basic idea, and this is much more challenging. For the contemporary reader, I beg your indulgence, but you can absolutely rely on my commitment to the historicity.

Writing Desk, Shakespeare and Company, Paris, France, February 2010

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