It’s time for some writerly chit-chat with author and writing mentor Sydney Smith. We’re both making a foray into historical fiction, a genre we haven’t written before. Here are some thoughts on the challenges we might face.
I love historical fiction. Take Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, for example. I learned so much about the Tudors from these richly detailed stories. I love the way novels bring a period to life, in a way most academic scholars do not. (I also enjoyed The Tudors television series, but mainly because I had a crush on Henry Cavill)
I asked some friends to name their favourite historical novelist. Surprisingly, two out of the three said Jane Austen. But she wrote about the people and society of her own contemporary world. That’s not historical fiction. To qualify in this category, according to the Historical Novel Society, novels must be set in a time at least fifty years before they are written.
I see two main categories in this genre. There are the period pieces, frequently romances, such as the books of Georgette Heyer. These novels are set in a specific period, but are not impacted by specific historical events. I sometimes find these tedious, wishing they contained the odd true-life signpost to ground me in their times. Then there are what I call the genuine historicals, where both people and events from the past play a role. When well-written, these are the stories that fascinate me.
Now I’m writing my own historical novel, (make that novels, for I have a trilogy in mind.) Of course all history is fiction to some extent – it’s just written by the winners. I want to write a fresh version of Tasmanian history, giving a voice to the outsiders and to the animals teetering on the extinction precipice. I want to follow the lives and loves of two families from 1880, through two world wars, to the present day. Through the lens of this family saga, I want to explore why the tiny, far-flung outpost of Tasmania became a cradle for the first global environment movement. It’s a change from the contemporary rural fiction that I also write. What a lot I’ll have to learn!
Now that you point out the two different forms of historical fiction, Jenny, I realise I prefer the other kind, what you call a period piece, and I call a costume drama. Actually, Georgette Heyer did write the sort you like. For example, An Infamous Army is about the Battle of Waterloo and is highly regarded in military circles as one of the best accounts of the battle ever written. The Spanish Bride concerns the Peninsula War, seen through the eyes of John Smith and his Spanish wife, Juana, and based on his memoirs. She wrote about William the Conqueror and John of Bedford as well. But, apart from The Conqueror, I didn’t care for those historical novels. I preferred the comedy of manners she came to specialise in, set in Regency England.
I’ve been turning over in my mind the historical fiction form. I have a novel I’d like to set in the Brooklyn and New York of the 1950s. Once I start, I’m sure I’ll think of other novels. This period interests me first of all because of the fashion. Dior introduced the New Look in 1947, feminine and frivolous after the austerity of the war years. It created a new trend in fashion that rolled on to the early 1960s.
Also, women had been sent back into the home after the end of World War II, when men returned from the battlefields. The United States went through a period of growth in a materialistic sense, but also underwent torments of another kind. The 1950s is the era of McCarthyism. It’s also the era that gave rise to The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book about the suburban malaise gripping women as their lives narrowed to cramped confinement, all domesticity with no outlet for their intellectual energies and wider aspirations. Hollywood depictions of women changed too. The dumb blonde was born in the 1950s. All of which is great for me and the kind of women’s fiction I write, about psychological confinement and the urge toward liberty.
But for me, voice is a problem. Whenever I think about writing fiction set in the past, I come up against the issue of voice. First there’s the voice of the story. Then there’s the voice of the characters. How do they speak? I don’t feel the need to restrict myself to the speech rhythms and manners of the period. But I do need to capture the tang of it. I also want to capture something of the era, rather than transplant a 21st century story to the 1950s. But I don’t want to be confined by 1950s insularity or values. Maybe these problems will be solved once I connect with my main characters. But somehow, whenever I think of my own historical fiction, I feel close to my characters’ personal dramas and psychology, yet distant from them. They remain elusive in my mind.
And there’s something indefinable about the world of another country. It isn’t so much the past that bothers me as the mysterious otherness of a country I haven’t visited and don’t know except through books and movies. If I write anything set in 1950s New York, I first have to visit New York. I have to know what the weather is like, the feel of the sun on my skin, the hustle and bustle of people, the smell of public transport systems. Even if I never use this kind of detail, I feel I need to give myself the choice of using or not using it.
I suppose I need to create authenticity on my own terms. All fiction poses problems of authenticity. Historical fiction is no different.
I didn’t know that about Georgette Heyer, Sydney, having only read a few of her Regency romances. Perhaps I should revisit her work.
Creating an authentic, historical voice is obviously a challenge. I hate it when an author becomes bogged down in antiquated language. Yet I am trying to give a credible impression of late 19th century phrasing. Avoiding a heavy-handed result takes some care.
I know what you mean about experiencing a place before writing about it. I’ve made research trips to the locations of all my novels so far. With outback fiction, the land becomes a character, and is a major part of the genre’s appeal. It’s essential to get it right. No amount of research beats spending time on the ground. Reference books can’t buy you drinks at the bar and tell you stories. Photos can’t replicate the beauty of a red gum framed by pink sunrise. When you go to the heart of your setting, maps become landscapes. Statistics turn into people. Mountains and rivers become metaphors.
Yet as L P Hartley so famously put it in the first line of The Go-Between, ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ Nobody can go back in time. Reading widely, teamed with a vivid imagination, are the most important tools an author has. Part of my new novel will be set in South Africa during the Boer War. I wasn’t there, and I’ve never been to Africa, but that won’t stop me!