“My God, they can't expect to put ‘Ye Olde’ in front of anything they want and get away with it.”
If, like me, you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory, you’ll immediately recognize Sheldon Cooper’s complaint about the historical inaccuracies of a Renaissance Faire, California-style. As much as I’d like to distance myself from most of Sheldon’s opinions, I’m forced to agree with him on this point. As a writer, I’ve penned nine books that are either historical (Victorian Chicago Mysteries) or have a strong historical element (Arkana Archaeology Adventures). As a critic for Deadly Pleasures, I’ve reviewed my share of historical fiction (some good, some not) so believe me when I say that you can’t just put “Ye Olde” in front of anything and expect to get away with it. Authors of contemporary fiction have to juggle plot, pacing, and character development. Historical fiction writers wish it was that easy.
TIMING ISN'T EVERYTHING
The first thing to consider as a historical fiction writer isn’t simply when something happened but what the world surrounding that event was like. We all know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 but it’s a good bet that when he first landed in the Bahamas, he didn’t head for the closest Tiki bar to order a boat drink. Objects and places we take for granted in the 21st century may or may not have existed in the corner of the past an author is exploring. To make that fictional world believable, the times as well as the timing need to be understood.
CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN (OR WOMAN)
Period costume is something that most historical authors (good and bad) get right. The only difference is that bad writers fail to think about the impact costume can have on conduct. For example, everybody knows Victorian women wore corsets. What most people don’t realize is that a woman who is laced tightly enough to give her an eighteen inch waist can’t bend, stretch, or engage in anything more strenuous than lifting a tea cup. Most of her conscious attention is focused on the struggle to breathe. She’s probably a very uptight, cranky creature for no better reason than that her underwear feels terrible. People who wear whalebone corsets or chain mail armor are going to think and feel very differently from people who wear sweat pants all day long.
THE PAST IS ANOTHER COUNTRY
It’s often been said that human nature doesn’t change over time. Perhaps not, but cultural values can shift radically in a heartbeat. The contemporary fiction writer has the luxury of writing about people who are immersed in the same cultural soup as s/he is. Not so a historical fiction author. Cultural values are absorbed much like the air we all breathe--invisibly and with very little conscious effort (unless, of course, you’re wearing a corset). The greatest mistake a historical fiction author can make is to believe that people in ancient times thought and felt exactly as we do today. To write effective historical fiction you have to immerse yourself without condescension in the values of the past no matter how odd they might seem to a modern sensibility. So if you’re planning to write a historical novel any time soon, be prepared to walk around in your character’s high-button shoes. And if the shoe pinches, write it.