Facts, Research, and Historical Fiction Novels

Torchy Blane, newspaper reporter in film.

I like facts and I like getting all the details. There’s just something satisfying about knowing you’ve covered all your bases. Unfortunately, my love of facts and details — not to mention accuracy — causes me to occasionally overload my readers; I’ll admit it. But no one said I already know all there is to know about good writing, did they?

Because of my factual fascination I find myself ready to critique anything and everything with a touch of history. We might as well admit it right now, the key to the future lies in the past (now don’t quote me on that because I think I heard it from a former teacher).

There is one area in particular that I am hard on: historical fiction novels.

Growing up I absorbed historical fiction (HF) novels written by legends like Gilbert Morris and Janette Oak. My taste in authors in this genre has eventually gravitated more towards Michael Phillips and Judith Pella because of the depth at which they write. In the more recent chapter of my life I really enjoy Davis Bunn and others that write in a similar genre as well as the former authors I mentioned. And I still love a good classic (I would love to recommend some to you!).

Because I’ve enjoyed HF so much in the past, and been exposed to varying degrees of depth and accuracy, I’m a hard critic.

Sadly what today’s authors of historical fiction call factual is often weak and highly infulenced by modern philosophy. I recall watching the 1970’s film Chisum and thinking how the women’s hair and makeup had a noticable touch of the era in the which the film was filmed instead of the time period of the story. Those of us who aspire to write historical fiction should be careful of where we come from and ask ourselves, “Would people of that day and age even consider that mindset?”

The philosophy most wide spread in period novels is feminism. In today’s culture it is embraced as freedom for women and a blessing to our society. Without getting into the subject itself, it is often that a female character in a period novel exhibits feministic leanings and desires despite the fact that feminism was as distant an ideal as electronics and exploring space.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

It’s 1850 in Louisiana and Annette, at age 20, rebels against her parents wishes to marry and instead runs away with the dreams of one day owning her own steamboat.

Outlandish dreams are understandable for a child but age should mature reason.

I ask authors, why does adventure only come to the women who defy culture?

Understandably, it is hard for those of us living in this age of equality and freedom to understand life in the past (though for some cultures this still exists) where women were limited to certain occupations, give or take, depending upon the era. But isn’t that the reason we have chosen to write in this area?

An idea might begin with a single question: what would that character have done in that society? What would his/her wishes and desires be?

It’s purely speculation from there on but try in your speculation to be authentic, real, and as contemporary as you can from with the knowledge you can have. You must be true to history if you expect to learn from it.

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