How historical do you want your historical fic?

Discussion in 'Historical Fiction' started by Martin Gill, May 4, 2016.

  1. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    How historical do you want your historical fic?

    I'm asking because I'm writing a first draft of a novel that started out very very low fantasy set in "viking" times but as I go on I'm gravitating towards it being set in the "real world" with no gods, magic etc but with two fudges to make it more alternate history...

    1. Fudge the exact timings of when certain people ruled and certain places (mostly Iceland and viking York and Dublin) were settled. That said - I'm aiming at a C9th setting where there's a lot of conflicting evidence about who ruled at various points anyway.
    2. The inclusion of a large scale natural phenomena which is perfectly plausible and did actually happen, but in the late 1600's, in order to weave in something that they mythologically believed back then, but to give it a real world rationale.

    So would this jar? Would you consider this not historical, but fantasy because it takes a massive licence with history? Does historical fantasy have to have an exact date, especially when its dealing with a very poorly documented dark age/early medieval setting?
     
  2. svalbard

    svalbard Well-Known Member

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    I do not think so, as long as you put in a foreword that you have taken licences with established history.

    For me the important thing would be to get the language and tone right. Are your characters believable 9th century people. Dates do not really matter in a good HF story but characters acting like they were teleported in from the 21st century would be a deal breaker for me.

    Someone from the 9th century would believe in magic, the supernatural, have different moral standards to our own etc.

    Good luck with your story.
     
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  3. aThenian

    aThenian Well-Known Member

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    I'd agree with Svalbard that it's more about the period feeling right than about dates and details.

    Mind you, there are people who read historical fiction who do seem to have strong views that whatever is in there "could have happened" and that every checkable detail must be correct. But I actually feel that historical fiction can be more authentic in a way when it takes a few liberties. Nobody is seriously suggesting that Shogun could ever have happened, or The Name of the Rose or (in film) A Knight's Tale but it seems to me that they do actually contain important truths about the time/place they are set in. (And no historical fiction can avoid a certain amount of anachronism, so maybe it's more honest in a way to include anachronisms that the reader recognises.)

    What I'm personally not so crazy about is historical fiction which is just a setting for anything-can-happen fantasy, with a tonne of magic injected into a supposedly historical setting which actually isn't really contributing anything but a bit of exoticism/background colour. But that's not what you're doing. I like the sound of your project.
     
  4. Parson

    Parson This world is not my home

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    I agree a couple of exceptions that are noted at the beginning would not be overmuch of a handicap.
     
  5. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Thanks. This is helpful. I completely agree on capturing the feel of what people would have believed. Magic is real to them, which is kind of my premise that part of what is going on as back drop is the characters' interpretation of a natural phenomenon as the intervention of the gods - the beginning of Ragnarok essentially. I was aiming for this apocalyptic kind of feel where they think the world is ending and they think Odin will be right along in a moment.

    For instance - one of the bad guys claims to be trollborn and unkillable. Clearly in a real world setting that isn't the case. But in the minds of the heroes he is - there's no question. He's big, ugly and has won a lot of fights. Ergo he's half troll. I don't want them thinking "oh, trolls aren't real" because to them they are. What I'm pondering though is how I describe things. I'm erring towards a very close 3rd POV so the reader will see and feel what the characters see - therefore the reader will see a trollborn warrior, but at no point will anything happen that's actually implausible. This is kind of why I'm trying to work out if it will read as too fantasy to be "historical".

    Maybe I'm worrying too much :)
     
  6. Lew Rockwell Fan

    Lew Rockwell Fan Have tasp, will travel.

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    I'll be the contrarian here. If I knew it was a mish mash like that, I'd be much less likely to read it. If I didn't know it until afterwards, I'd feel cheated. If you didn't even own up to it, I'd be contemptuous. I read historical novels like I read SF. And I'm a geek in both worlds. Each to his own.
     
  7. MWagner

    MWagner Well-Known Member

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    I'll reiterate what others have commented and say it's more important to me that an author captures the attitudes and behaviour of the historical societies, than that every detail about technology or dates is correct.

    And I think you can get a fantasy vibe from authentic historical fiction. Certainly people in the era you're writing about had some outlandish supernatural beliefs. A novel where the viking character believe in trolls and Ragnarok can be perfectly historical. Bernard Cornwell manages this trick deftly in the Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King etc). Characters certainly believe Merlin has magical powers. And he pulls off some wild stuff. But there's nothing overtly supernatural on the page.
     
    Last edited: May 9, 2016
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  8. The Big Peat

    The Big Peat Well-Known Member

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    MWagner beat me to it, but Cornwell is a prime example of how to incorporate semi-fantastic and supernatural elements into fairly straight history.
     
  9. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    The Warlord Chronicles is my model here. I loved the idea of ghost fences scaring the crap out of people.
     
  10. svalbard

    svalbard Well-Known Member

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    Ghost Fences existed. There is evidence of one used at Stanwick. Possibly by The Brigantes against the Romans.
     
  11. Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    A couple of examples:

    Well known and established author: Bernard Cornwell manipulates the exact history in his Last Kingdom book and says so in an afterword. He changed the location of a battle and the date of the death of a major player along with a number of other minor details. So fine so long as you tell people.

    Less well known author Clifford Beal's book Raven's Banquet is set in the war between the protestants and the Hapsburg Empire. As far as I know his history is pretty accurate but he has introduced some supernatural and magic elements that are somewhat less historically precise though certainly would have been consistent with current superstition.

    In much the same way, if you have magic in a book set in Viking times then that would be consistent with the current superstitions of the time. However if you have moved a major well-documented natural disaster by several hundred years then I think you are pretty much obliged to present it as alternate history. Which is fine because alternate histories should typically have historical accuracy up to the point of divergence.
     
  12. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    Well wow - I didn't know that. Cool :)
     
  13. Ray McCarthy

    Ray McCarthy Sentient Marmite: The Truth may make you fret.

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    Putting it mildly. It's pretty obvious though.
    It wasn't my usual sort of reading, but I liked it enough I might try another of his, I think there is another in that series?

    Yes.

    Though if something is set in contemporary times, slightly in the past and thus really alternate history, you can sort of cheat by removing anything that identifies exact date and people will assume it's the near future as it hasn't happened, like an Alien Starship visiting.
     
  14. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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  15. Vertigo

    Vertigo Mad Mountain Man

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    As I recall They were written in the order Gideon's Angel then Raven's Banquet but the chronological order is the reverse. This actually presented me with some problems as I've not yet read Gideon's Angel; for those who have I believe Raven's Banquet ends up nicely tying into the start of Gideon's Angel giving the book a satisfying conclusion. For those, like me, who haven't the ending of Raven's Banquet was inconclusive and very much left hanging. I still do have plans to read Gideon's angel.
     
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  16. Martin Gill

    Martin Gill Well-Known Member

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    The more I think and write (currently now at the end of the first section of the book - the doom-laden turning point for all the characters - I am realising that the alternate history/fantasy elements aren't actually important at all and basically all I need is a made up queen/jarl of a real land that's history was poorly enough documented in the 7/800's that I am not really making anything more up that the above mentioned authors other than giving life to more mythical characters - not exactly Ragnar Lothbrok but essentially folk of the same status who are mentioned in chronicles but never nailed down to an exact time. The fantasy-esque/natural disaster piece doesn't actually bring anything to the table, so I'm leaning towards more traditional historical fic now I feel.
     
  17. galanx

    galanx Well-Known Member

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    If it's sold as historical fic, I want the history to be as accurate as possible. Any kind of historical fantasy is cool, as long as it's advertised as such.
     
  18. Aetius

    Aetius Member

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    Honestly I can let a awful lot slide in historical fiction.

    If the Rhine only froze in 316AD in January and the plot point of your book is the river still being frozen in late February, well I can let that slide - I have actually seen that complaint in a review. Similarly modern swearing gets a pass, whilst our ancestors certainly swore like troopers their insults often seem...lacking to modern ears, and I am developing a strong dislike to the command "fire" given to archers.

    My main bugbear in historical fiction is the using of 20th/21st century knowledge to prove just how smart and skilled a character is compared to everyone else. So a young and plucky 12th century physician will know all about germ theory to and get the reader on side when dealing with those old fuddy-duddies that still believe in humors and excess bile. A Roman patrician giving a lecture straight from the UN Declaration of Human Rights when it comes to dealing slaves.
     
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  19. Brian G Turner

    Brian G Turner He's a very naughty boy! Staff Member

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    Welcome to the chronicles forums. :)
     
  20. aThenian

    aThenian Well-Known Member

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    That's a great example. I agree. If I'm reading historical fiction I don't want to read about characters with a twenty first century mindset. Someone like Mary Renault can write the Ancient World so that her characters take slavery for granted, believe women should be confined to the house, talk about infanticide as completely normal, and that's what interesting - to enter into their mental framework. And a great writer can make those characters sympathetic, and their values comprehensible within their own context.
     
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