Tuesday, 27 October 2009

What do you want in your historical fiction?

I've recently joined the Historical Novel Society. Amongst other things, each issue of the society's journal – the Historical Novels Review - briefly reviews a great number of historical novels and, having read quite a few of the back numbers the society has kindly sent me, I am struck by something. Though the reviews talk a lot about plot, character and authenticity and, to a slightly lesser extent about structure there is very little comment on language, voice, vocabulary – how the author has used the narrative tone to convey some impression of the period they are writing about.

Now, for me, this is one of the most important – and interesting – things about writing histfic. But how important is it to readers?

If you read historical fiction, what are the criteria by which you judge a historical novel? What are the things you look for? What are essential and what optional extras? I'd be fascinated to know.

19 comments:

Tim Stretton said...

I agree with you, Alis, that language is key. Maybe this is included in the wider notion of "authenticity" - a slippery concept that surely comprises more than just getting the shoes right.

A historical novel can't succeed without getting both time and place right - and it's very difficult to do that without nailing the narrative voice. Nothing jars more in historical fiction more than anachronism - most obviously in word choice, but also in characters' attitudes and worldviews.

Margaret D. said...

Interesting question. The narrative voice in historical fiction can run the gamut from carefully crafted archaic language like Edith Pargeter's in the Brothers of Gwynedd quartet, to language that, while avoiding anachronisms, is much more brisk and modern in flow, syntax and vocabulary - Philippa Gregory's popularity may be partly due to her mastery of a prose style that reads easily even for readers who don't have a lot of familiarity with historical novels, but which still gives a flavor of a past century. A more literary writer whose prose strikes a similar balance is Emma Donoghue - Slammerkin is a masterpiece.

If an author's prose doesn't jar, then I find plot, character and authenticity more important to my enjoyment of a historical novel, regardless of what style of voice the author uses. But if it jars - for example, if modern slang slips in, I will mention it in a review. This was the case with C.W. Gortner's otherwise outstanding novel The Last Queen, and I did mention it in my review.

Alis said...

Hi Tim - yes, anachronisms can really rock your confidence in a writer. I remember once reading a novel set in the eleventh century where the hero took a handkerchief out of his pocket - since neither handkerchiefs nor pockets existed in the eleventh century this kind of ruined the effect for me!

Alis said...

Hi Margaret - thank you for your comment. I agree that the narrative voice doesn't have to be archaic but that some kind of 'nod' in the direction of language which isn't obviously contemporary is necessary or at least desireable.
I wonder what you thought of Wolf Hall in that respect?

Frances Garrood said...

I don't often read historical novels, but when I do, the things I tend to notice - and which jar the most - are anachronisms in speech.

Talking of which, the recent adaptation of Emma on TV springs to mind. For me, it was ruined by lots of things, but especially such anachronisms (eg someone being 'at the back of the queue' when some virtue was being handed out. NOT Jane Austen, and not contemporary. It sounded ridiculous). A shame, for there is so much wonderful dialogue in the novel. Bring back Andrew Davies!

Tim Stretton said...

While anachronistic speech generally annoys me, in the right context certain writers can pull it off.

I'm thinking for example of Allan Massie's excellent series of Imperial Rome novels. These explore power and the political process, and if they have a thesis it's that these things are timeless. Massie sets out to make Rome a recognisably modern political environment. (Written in the 80's, he gives us Julius Caesar saying "there is no such thing as society"). It's *very* difficult to pull this off but Massie manages it.

And of course Shakespeare, the king of the historical drama, has characters steeped in Elizabethan idiom whether his story is set in Ancient Greece or the Wars of the Roses.

Alis said...

HI Frances- yes, I spotted the back of the queue reference - it wasn't the only thing that stopped me watching the serialisation but it certainly didn't help.

Alis said...

Hi Tim - I've never read any Allan Massie's books, though I did read an excellent article by him in the SoA magazine a while back. Sounds like he comes highly recommended?
As far as Shakespeare's concerned, it raises an interesting question - did they have the concept of anachronism as applied to art?

Karen said...

I want a real sense of the place and time I'm reading about; to be transported there, and language (as long as it's not overdone!) is essential.

I've got Wolf Hall on my reading list :o)

Alis said...

Hi Karen - yes, I agree, you just want to feel that around the next corner you'll find yourself in whatever century the novel is set in. And when it's done well, it's wonderful...

Deborah Swift said...

Hello Alis, What an interesting discussion. It gave me real food for thought, so much so that I have "borrowed" the subject for my blog. I have linked your blog to mine, where I have posted something about historical fiction. I have thought about joining the Historical Novel Society but wondered if the emphasis might be as you seem to suggest, more about the history and less about the book.

Alis said...

Hi Deborah - great to see you here.
I think, whatever the content of the HNR reviews, it's good to know what's being published in the genre and what people think of it. Also the HNS runs very good conferences and courses - Ann Weisgarber who recommended that I join the HNS had just come back from one when I met her in London and was very complimentary.

Deborah Swift said...

Thanks for that recommendation, I shall take your advice and join. I imagine too it is always stimulating to have an overview of the genre - for example insights into which periods are currently in vogue with writers, which out of favour and so forth.I'm off to their website now!

schultpe said...

As an HF author, I find this discussion fascinating. I concur that anachronisms are a literary minefield; they can ruin an otherwise wonderful read for an informed reader. Even though my academic and teaching background is in history, I marvel at those authors who are able to recreate the world of Ancient Rome, or Medieval Europe successfully. My novel is set in 1941 (an era I thought I knew backwards and forwards), and I recall the seemingly endless hours researching details to ensure they were correct. My continuing compliments to all in our genre who take the time and effort to "get it right."

My new novel is entitled THE FUHRER VIRUS. It is a WWII spy/conspiracy/thriller for adult readers and can be found at www.eloquentbooks.com/TheFuhrerVirus.html, www.amazon.com, www.amazon.co.uk, www.barnesandnoble.com, and on Google Review. Read a recent review by Celia Hayes on PODBRAM.

Thanks!

Paul Schultz

Alis said...

Hi Paul - thanks for dropping by. And good luck with the Fuhrer Virus

Michelle (Mickmouse) said...

This is really interesting for me on two levels. Firstly the novel I am trying to write combines fantasy (time travel) with an historical period, so I am researching like mad to try and avoid time errors and anachronisms. Secondly I did a medieval history degree and feel myself gasp when I read anachronisms. That said i read a very interesting article by Michelle Paver of 'Wolf Brother' fame, and she said that the plot is everything in historical fiction, especially if you are writing for children. People want the authenticity of the period but are rarely looking for an historical education. After all we do we read historical fiction, like any other, to be transported elsewhere in adventure.
Michelle
x

Alis said...

Hi Michelle - for me, as a reader, plot is pretty key whatever genre we're talking about. I'm not too keen on books which are all plot and no character development and I am rather partial to a nice turn of phrase here and there but I don't think plot can be dispensed with whatever period the novel is set in.

exiledbyaccident said...

For me when it comes to historical fiction (or any form of fiction, really) what I value most of all is language, that slippery thing that is voice, style.

Having compelling characters and being historically accurate and engaging is great, of course, but for me it amounts to nothing if the book is not well written.

Language comes first. My favourite historical novels (Jeanette Winterson's "The Passion", Anthony Burguess' "Nothing like the sun", etc) are not about period and plausibility (although they get that right, too) but about the beauty of words.

Alis said...

Hi Exiledbyaccident, thanks for your comment. I agree up to a point though for me all these things have to come together. A beautifully written book (in terms of voice or prose style) that doesn't have something to say would, I think, pale after sixty pages or so but if a book is all plot or characterisation then one longs for a well-turned phrase or a voice that leaps off the page and says 'yes, this is what this person's inner voice sounds like'. For me, the novel which succeeds best in all these fields is Geraldine Brooks's Year of Wonders which i have raved about on this blog before.