Putting the History in Historical Fiction

Putting the History in Historical Fiction

Ernest Hemingway once said: “If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. … The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”

This non-obvious lesson is one I learned and relearned in the four and a half years it took to write The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, a literary trilogy based on the author’s life. Along the way, I jotted down a similar set of guides regarding the use of history in historical fiction: 1) Start with as much actual history as you can. 2) Use as few of the details of that history as possible. 3) Make the history serve the story, not the other way around.

(I would call these three items “Hemingway’s Rules” except for the possible confusion with the big guy and his iceberg.)

Rule 1 and 2 might seem to cancel out, but they actually reinforce. Rule 1 is to know the history so well that you understand the personal (biography) and the social (history) enough to make both real. This gives you the ability to internalize the material and write about it thoroughly. The information will flow naturally, not as if you’re cribbing lines from another source. We’ve all read historical fiction that is set in a certain time, yet all the author does is wave his or her hand toward a few well-known facts of the era and then writes a story that could be set anywhere or any time. This is not artistic freedom; this is artistic indolence. When asked once how he wrote great free verse, the poet Richard Wright replied that it was because he had trained for years on sonnets. Freedom comes from mastering the subject, not avoiding it.

Rule 2 is important, however, because once you know something really well, your instinct is to tell the world all about it. This is usually not good in fiction. We’ve all also read the historical fiction in which the story suddenly stops for a two-paragraph or two-page digression on an historical sidebar. This can be interesting, but very few writers have the literary skills to pull off this trick more than once per novel. What Hemingway (the other one) meant is: Using your deep well of knowledge, put down the most salient facts—and only those—that are necessary to make the setting believable and the scene function. Anything beyond that will slow down the story and eventually bury your characters in the rubble of times gone by.

Rule 3 embraces the other two. Don’t let historical events drag your story along. Have the history illuminate and support your story. Diana Gabaldon sets the Outlander series in the Scottish rebellion against England of the 1740s. Her first several volumes do a terrific job of weaving her deeply moving love story in and out of the era’s political and military events. This tight weave of danger increases the drama, putting more at stake in the lives of Claire and Jamie. In the later volumes, the connection to the bigger world becomes less integral, and the stories lose some of their punch. The plots become more contrived as the author subconsciously shifts from developing the relationship to tying together historical episodes. You can’t really dislike anything that Claire and Jamie do, but at times it feels as though Gabaldon is repeating her formula in a new setting rather than coming up with compelling external events to continue to drive their relationship forward.

This is likely a minority view, as the huge popularity of the series shows. My wife, who finds reading straight history boring, loves learning about the West Indies, North Carolina, and the American Revolution through the lives of our Outlanders. But that’s the point: Later on, the main characters are there to relate the history more than their own lives. Even Georgette Heyer, who did more to create the Regency romance genre than Jane Austen, sometimes has her characters on the sideline, exchanging bright repartee while watching the parade of history march by. My view is that the history should remain the supporting platform for the characters and their relationship. I think we fell in love with Claire and Jamie in the early going and now are just along for the ride.

If there’s any doubt, read any of the last two or three volumes in the series and then return to the original The Outlander. You’ll see what I mean. The later books continue with the buckles being swashed and the Frasers’ trademark enthusiasm for sex. But the inventive personal story line, the slow entanglement of their feelings, and the brilliant contradictions of the Frank character(s) are what make the first volume psychologically and emotionally compelling. And one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read.

The Marriage of Miss Jane Austen, which traces love from a charming courtship through the richness and complexity of marriage and concludes with a test of the heroine’s courage and moral convictions, is now complete and available from Amazon and Jane Austen Books.

The Trilogy is also available in a single “boxed set” e-book:

22 Responses to Putting the History in Historical Fiction

  1. Well, I’m there with you regarding the ‘Outlander’ saga. Loved books 1-3 but lost interest in 4 and never picked it up again. However, when I introduced my daughter to the series, she has loved it ever since and the TV series. I couldn’t get into the TV series due to my vision of Claire being different. Jamie was perfect though! Yes, history needs to be woven in but not overwhelm the story. Speaking of stories, I bought your box set and looking forward to reading it!

    • Carole, I’ve enjoyed the TV version and will likely continue to watch it. There are many books–“Game of Thrones” being one–I’ve enjoyed in visual form rather than in book form. Thanks for purchasing my trilogy. It’s not your traditional Jane Austen but I hope it is a believable one.

  2. I found the incites and information regarding the rules of using history in historical fiction to be very valuable guides. Thank you for this article/post.

    I’m sorry to disagree with your assessment of Diana Gabaldon’s books. I found plenty of conflict, strife, outward forces of evil to overcome, and ‘war’ (historical settings) to keep my interest in the ongoing lives of the Fraser’s maturing marriage, growing family and their stories. She stated early on that was one important goal in her story arc, to show a mature marriage partnership over their lifetime. As opposed to debutante meets a lord, lord woos debutante after his eyes are opened to her wonderful intelligence not her beauty or fortune, mistrust and secrets overcome….a bunch of passionate interludes (sexual tension Yay!) and poof, the H&h live happily ever after. 250 pages. Done. Outlander is a saga. I bought into it, and will continue. She’s an excellent writer, when you read slowly and appreciate the language, the words, incites into human nature, also appreciating the natural world they live in and just how precarious life was in those days surviving the elements.

  3. I’ve been doing this and thinking I was crazy, researching processes in minute detail and then dropping in one or two relevant bits into the writing. Thank you for helping me feel validated.

  4. This was so interesting. I was amazed at your points and rules. When I read them… it was like a light going on in my head. I could plainly see why I left the Outlander series. Yes… I did lost interest when her focus shifted… and for the very reasons you mentioned. Thank you for clarifying. Also, thank you for explaining so clearly why historical and history are not interchangeable… or is that exclusive??? I know I am not saying this correctly so I will shut up. Just know that I appreciate this lesson and thank you for listing those rules. Blessings in your work and endeavors.

  5. CH…You have driven the ball straight and down the middle with this post. While I can run afoul of inserting too much history, I wish to believe that the entire world through which my characters needs must travel is 100% informed by history…and also, therefore, are the characters. They are, perforce, the product of the world in which they exist. Thus, post-Napoleonic Britain was caught between the collapse of artificially high prices and surplus labor. The low food costs and excess men in the marketplace fueled the Industrial Revolution…and so on. Great Post here!

  6. Those are great rules. I think three is the most difficult to follow. You want to put in so many things (at least, I do, and I don’t even know anywhere nearly as much as you do!). For example, I was reading a first hand account, written by an American who traveled through England and Scotland around 1811 (I’m terrible with exact dates and too lazy to go get the book from the shelf). Anyhow, he said even the fashionably dressed women in Edinburgh could be seen walking about town with bare feet, unlike in London. He said lots of Scots didn’t have shoes, or at least didn’t wear them when the weather didn’t warrant it. I would love to work that into a story, but each time I try I realize I’m changing a plot line just to accommodate an interesting fact. One people may not even want to believe. So, I stop myself. So far! 🙂

    • Summer, I know how hard it is to keep from sticking in cool stuff just because it’s cool! I’ll talk more about this point next time, but I have a list of things I really wanted to work into my trilogy. I never could w/o creating a detour that got away from the story.

  7. Oh, Collins, you have definitely struck a chord today. LOL!
    I loved your three rules. I several friends who write historical fiction. Naturally, they assume my historical romance to be less compelling and less accurate (historically) than their works.The word “romance” is equivalent to smut in many of their minds, and they think anyone can write historical ROMANCE, where it takes a consummate historian to write historical fiction.
    Likewise, I admit I find some of their stories loaded with so much history I lose the fiction part. I love history. I wish we could all learn the lessons it provides us, but I do not want it to smother the story line when I am reading fiction. There must be a balance.
    On a side point, I agree with you about the Outlander series. I read the first three books, but when I got to #4, I lost interest.
    And on side note with Heyer, many forget she made up her own rules regarding the Regency. Most take, for instance, the idea of young ladies wearing white during their Come Out to be the gospel truth. That was Heyer’s idea, not necessarily the “history” of the time. We have all come to accept wearing white for young ladies to be the gospel truth of the Regency, and so, most writers of Regency romance (me included), keep to the tradition, but history does not say such was true. Sometimes writers “create” history, as well as include it in their tales.

    • That’s one of my favorite topics, too! The difference between history and the various genres of fiction related to history. We all sort of agree to keep to a certain world, even though it may not be historically accurate. The genres have taken on realities of their own and those realities don’t need to 100% mirror the truth. Let’s face it, if we wrote the truth about those times, we’d be talking about people peeing in chamber pots in the dining room, as any Austen Author blog follower knows! 🙂 Most of the time, that level of historical reality isn’t what I’m looking for in my evening reading experience 🙂 Or, if it is, a historical romance is not my choice of reading for the evening.

    • Regina, I think it’s OK for a fictional world to have a few rules of its own, as long as they are consistent w/the general world of the period, and as long as the author is consistent internally. In my series, I created a few mannerisms for Jane’s brother Frank that were not provable but seemed consistent w/what we know of him. I didn’t know about Heyer and the white dress for the Come Out, but that’s a good example. Colored dresses were the usual for weddings then. Jane Austen’s mother had a red wedding dress that she repurposed as a formal gown, then a day dress. Supposedly, it eventually was recut into an outfit for the young Frank. White was just beginning to show up as a color for a wedding dress. It did not become standard until Victorian times. So if Heyer led the way to some degree, I’m OK w/that.

    • Ah Regina, my eyes are rolling so far back in my head at that comment of ‘anyone can write historical ROMANCE.’ Just like in any genre, there are crap writers and amazingly wonderful authors. And within both of those extremes you will either; a) see an occasional piece of inspiration that keeps their fans coming back wading through the above mentioned crap giving rave reviews so that the author never learns better skills, or, b.) even the very best of the best will sometimes just not hit the highest standard we now demand of them. We’ve all experienced both, and I’m willing to continue reading my favorite amazingly wonderful authors….because of their writing.

      Still looking forward to the next book in the series, following Angel Comes to Devil’s Keep, Regina.

      • Michelle, did you not read The Earl Claims His Comfort? That is book 2 of the series. I am still waiting for a release date for Lady Chandler’s Sister, book 3.

        • Oh yes, Regina. I did read that. In fact I won that in one of your giveaways!!! And loved it, so went back and purchased Angel and read that 2nd. That’s why I said ‘next book in the series….following Angel.’ MY BAD!!!! So, WHEW! You can rest easy. Still looking forward to book 3. Best of luck.

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