Are You Really Who You Write?
Is that really you? When you write historical fiction, how much of the contemporary writer goes into a protagonist who lives in another era? And why do you want to write about the long-ago past anyway?
Good questions, and ones I am asked often. The answers aren’t as simple as I once thought they were. Yes, that is me you’re reading about . . . and no, it’s not.
I’ve written a stand-alone novel set during the Fourth Crusade and another that took place during World War II. I’m currently working on the fourth book of a mystery series in which the characters live in New York City during the Gilded Age. With each book I really and truly did sink into the time period. I walked in the shoes of the characters I created. And still do. How does that happen? And why would I let it?
Many writers of historical fiction, including the sub-genre of historical mysteries, will tell you that doing the research is one of the great attractions of writing fiction set in another era. Who doesn’t like to imagine herself living in a time and place that isn’t her own? Everything seems more exciting and even more romantic when glimpsed through the lens of yesteryear and the remove of distance.
Glimpsed is the operative word here. When you delve deeply into your source material, the romance quickly evaporates under the awkward realities of no indoor plumbing, no electricity, arduous travel by foot or horse-drawn vehicle, and no means of instant communication. Not to mention the torture of corsets, the danger of communicable diseases for which no immunization or antibiotics exist, and, for women, the legal status of children. Just about anything that makes your life easier and more exhilarating today didn’t exist a hundred and fifty years ago.
So why do we writers of historical fiction do it? And how do we make that personal leap that launches us into a past that doesn’t exist anymore?
Let’s start by correcting the assumption of that second question. The past does still exist. We know more today about bygone events and civilizations than ever before. The world of words and images is a record with which there can be no arguing. But what fascinates, what captivates the writer of historical fiction are the lacunae, the gaps where the records have been destroyed or never existed in the first place. All those wonderful blank spots just waiting for someone to posit an explanation. Based on fact, of course.
We’ll all argue with our readers, with ourselves, and with each other, about just how far we can let our imaginations roam. Can you blatantly contradict known fact? Nowadays you can. It’s called alternate history, and ranges from science fiction to imagining a world in which Nazi Germany was the victor in World War II. It’s the ultimate stretch into What If?
But for this writer of historical fiction and historical noir mysteries, there is no serious tampering with known, documented truth. Sorry, that’s just a quirk of mine. I won’t include anything that blatantly contradicts what we know about a person or an era, and I’m even skittish about taking lesser liberties. On the rare occasions when I telescope dates a bit for the sake of a narrative, I have to confess my guilt in an Author’s Note. And I justify the transgression by reminding myself that I’m not the only one to do this.
The thing is, I do get lost in the past, first in the research, and then when my characters come alive as I write the narrative. And let’s not beat around the bush any more, there are substantial bits and pieces of 21st century me in the heroines and villains I create. How could it be otherwise? Criminals of the past are at least as cruel and without conscience as the myriad of present-day murderers that people our news media. When I write about love, I’m no doubt delving back into some of my own experiences, reliving the joys and pains we’ve all shared. The real fun of it all is that I can build upon what I know and thrust myself safely into another time and place where I can heighten the ecstasy and intensify the torture. And when I finish that day’s work, I can come home, bringing some of the past with me.
What you have to be careful about when you write historical fiction is that you don’t egregiously mix up your time periods. What’s purely 19th century stays there; what’s undoubtedly 21st century can’t be allowed to intervene. And you do get used to jumping back and forth, shedding conflicting ways of thinking, talking, and acting, as easily as you change your clothes.
Writing is hard, lonely work. Ask any of us who do it. But there’s pure, unadulterated fun in imagining yourself to be someone else. To dwell for a time in a world of your own creation. To twist facts around and around until you wring a logical explanation out of them that solves a mystery.
I write what I am and I am what I write.