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Respecting the Past: A Philosophy for Historical Fiction

oyan-blog-historian-03-pinterestBy Rachel Garner, Staff Writer

This blog post is the third in a series. You may want to read the other two first:

Part 1: A Secret to Historical Fiction that Won’t Make Historians Cry

Part 2: Research for Historical Fiction: How to Meet the Challenge

I’m going to put it out there: lots of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages makes me angry.

If people ask me about nonfiction resources, I’m happy to oblige, cheerfully pelting England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings and other books or articles at them, forgetting that titles like that don’t sound exciting to most people.

But when asked for fiction suggestions, I find myself in a sudden quandary.

In this final post on “kickstarting” your historical fiction, I want to shed light on why. My misgivings have roots deep in my past disappointments. In spite of that, I remain hopeful about the potential of historical fiction—yes, even historical fiction set in “medieval times.” This is where story and history meet in a complicated but beautiful way.

I want to discuss something writers and readers of historical fiction don’t bring up a whole lot: I’ve decided to call it a philosophy of writing historical fiction. It’s worth noting that this is my philosophy, and there are probably people who would disagree—and are definitely allowed to. Nonetheless, whether you agree with me or not, these issues should be on your mind.

To begin, I want to reiterate that you don’t have to be an expert in your period before you start writing. First, because you can’t be. Second, because your story is the priority.

You need something to work with first. It’s fine to free yourself to be historically wrong as you write a rough draft. There’s no shame in reserving most of your research for a later draft. In my experience, editing for accuracy in subsequent drafts actually helps my story editing, because it forces me to think outside of my preconceived story boxes.

But I also need to issue a warning, so I can show you why you need not only a strong story but a strong ethic for how you will present the past. There are two major pitfalls authors face when writing about times past:

1) Openly mocking “backwards” views through ironic voice and plotting

2) Giving the hero a modern mind which allows him/her to rise above the “backwards” people around him/her.

In medieval fiction, the first problem can result in what I call “dirty Middle Ages” narratives. These kinds of books pass themselves off as being more accurate, but zoom in on everything the twenty-first century finds gross and make those parts of the story as visceral as possible. Their focus isn’t the people behind the living conditions, but the conditions themselves.

The second problem frequently manifests as “girl in an arranged marriage (which is CRUEL and HEARTLESS) runs away to be an Independent Woman and/or marry her True Love.” Only our brave and fearless heroine realizes that marrying for love is better than marrying along social customs. Everyone in her backwards world is trying to stop her.

Beyond being cliché, this premise is based on extremely modern ideas and ideals. It’s not that people in the Middle Ages didn’t want love in their lives or sometimes wanted to pick whom they married—a glance at their literature shows that they did, and in fact peasants were pretty much free to marry whomever they liked. The problem here is not misunderstanding the human desire for love, but misunderstanding the role marriage played, or worse, simply disliking the historical role and changing it.

Marriage among the nobility was frequently about making familial connections (so that members of the class that defined itself by war were less likely to kill one another) and about maintaining property and support, the latter especially for women. (The unique situation and surprising power of widows in this period is quite fascinating.) Another thing we have trouble wrapping our modern minds around is that we have happy and successful arranged marriages documented.

Speaking of modernity, “tolerance” is a buzzword of the past couple decades, and yet we extend astonishingly little to past peoples and cultures. Arranged marriages, blood-letting, divine rights of kings, and the huge influence of the mostly-united Catholic Church (which was just the Church in the Middle Ages) all make us a bit squeamish, and so we tend to filter out such unsavory ideas from our own characters. We end up with characters who are Ahead of their Times and decidedly un-medieval (or perhaps un-Civil War or un-Roman Empire).

Occasionally we also chance across a situation where the entire period has undergone this scrubbing (thank you, Victorians), and we end up with an idyllic, pure, Christian, pastoral, and delightfully childlike Europe that never existed.

But what am I driving at here?

The point is this: Your historical fiction must respect the people of the past, or it is no longer “historical.” It’s just fiction + your opinions.

My philosophy for writing historical fiction—all my (many!) thoughts and my own efforts—boils down to this concept of respect.

Understanding and admiration are required for any kind of respect, and this respect will come from digging deep into the consciousness of your period. One of my favorite books I’ve read in college is called From Memory to Written Record by M.T. Clanchy. I love the way that Clanchy works hard to throw out our preconceived, modern idea that literacy = civilization. We live in a world where the written is king, and speaks to us with great authority—think of textbooks, contracts, news articles, etc. Clanchy makes you really consider how medieval people thought, not what you think they should have thought.

Part of living in a culture—any culture—is an underlying bias that our culture is correct and most reasonable, and deviants from it are not. I’m spending my semester reading loads of land disputes, watching for the very few mentions of written records used as proof of land ownership—versus the large number of sources where a group of local men testify to the accuracy of an account. Frequently the records make no mention of proof at all, but simply say that the two claimants both argued and the jury decided. This may seem baffling at first, but when you study a society in which few people can read, documents are easily forged, and community ties are incredibly close and important (magnifying the consequences of lying), it begins to make more sense.

There’s almost always a reason for something. It may not be a good reason, or a moral reason, or an accurate reason (abysmal medical practices were usually the result of ignorance, not malicious intent), but you should always seek out the reason. Do not just strip your characters of views that make you uncomfortable or seem impossibly stupid.

We need more people writing historical fiction with honesty and gentleness.

My final suggestion has to do with what I call “the flexible moments.” I mean the points where, when you get right down to it, there’s no way of really knowing how a situation would play out in “real life”—or there’s possibly a precedent, but it seems likely that there were exceptions, as there are almost always exceptions where humanity is concerned.

My main projects are set in 1191 and 1192, and one of the major characters struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder. Virtually all of my research on this has been modern. While it is possible to scrape together a little bit about the situation of the mentally unwell in the Middle Ages, the truth is that there isn’t enough information for the kind of detail and time that my story needs. In writing this character, I have to combine what I know of the Middle Ages, what I know of the condition, what I know about the characters involved, what I know about human nature, and my artistic vision. Historical fiction is frequently caught in this balancing act—examining critically what information you have, looking at what you need, and deciding how to allow them to affect each other.

As a creative writer, it’s important to remember that even when dealing with the weight of history, people are still people, and story is still king. Be careful and intentional in the decisions you make, but don’t be so afraid of “messing up history” that you don’t let your characters and plot breathe. As long as you’re striving to show them respect and doing everything we’ve discussed in the past two posts, I’m sure medieval people will forgive you—after they’ve made fun of some of the woefully inaccurate conclusions historians like me have come to.

About Rachel

Rachel was one of the seven students—or self-labeled “guinea pigs”—who took part in the pilot class for The One Year Adventure Novel. Known as “Nairam” in the extended OYAN community, Rachel is an example of dedication to her craft and a gifted editor. She is also a kind and forthright writing mentor to students at every level of the program, and a Story Coach. A homeschool graduate, she is now in college studying history. When not hiding out in the medieval England section of her school library, she edits her Robin Hood retelling and pretends that ten years is definitely not too long to spend on a single writing project.

This Post Has 5 Comments
  1. You’ve touched on a very important topic. Anachronism is a tough thing to conquer and avoid. Did the kids of the past look at their parents in the same way kids today do? Did they talk with them the same way? Did they rebel against parental authority? It’s clear from historical documents (including warnings in the Book of Proverbs and writings of Paul in the Bible, and a short blurb from Plato, and even some Babylonian artifacts) that kids have always tried to shake-off authority. Human nature, as you said. Even Neolithic people would have been people with frustrations and relational problems. What a wonderful way to analyze history in just the research an author does to find out how a young person from X time period would clash with the problems of even today.

    I love your idea to show PTSD in the Medieval ages. They called it shell-shock in WWI. You see it in All Quiet on the Western Front. But you see the overwhelming nature of war even in the guidelines about war during Bible times (running away from war led to death for desertion).

    The general traumatic shock of death or other shocks leads to PTSD symptoms in families, often the cause of alcoholism and perhaps even so intertwined that alcoholism was the “sickness” identified.

    That said, if death is a more common kind of suffering (number of kids living vs. dying early) the trauma would not be as severe, perhaps, as today. But death is death. Grief comes in one size. I’m looking forward to seeing your work when it’s done, Rachel. Sounds intriguing.

    My advice for the junior writer is this, find out what the general life worldview of the time was, and try to understand how they viewed life, death, God, Providence. These are things that would shape their thoughts, words and responses to difficulty. Today’s responses are very different, though the feelings may be the same. I had to really dig-in for my novel, but I’m happy with the result.

    1. I enjoy reading your thoughts, Darlene! The idea of the responses being different while the core feelings are likely to be the same is a really good way of looking at the whole situation, I think.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this post! As a huge history nerd (and writer), it is one of my great frustrations when movies or books set in periods I love obviously care not a wit about the way people actually thought or acted. I’ve always thought the whole point of setting a story in a different time or place was to see how that time or place would affect the characters and the story; if it doesn’t change anything, than what was the point?

    I completely agree about respect needing to be granted to the people of the past. They deserve it just as much as the living! And not just in fiction; a person deserves to be known for who they truly were, not demonized or laughed at because they held beliefs or acted in a way that doesn’t agree with modern sensibilities. We are all of us products of our times, after all.

    The “girl fleeing from an evil arranged marriage” trope needs to go away. I would LOVE to see a book that focuses on a successful arranged marriage; as you said, there are many examples of them throughout history. The focus of the story could be how they made it work; man, the opportunities for conflict in two people who know nothing about each other but must learn to live together are huge. Add to that the fact that their family’s political and/or social interests are quite possibly riding on their success, and you’ve got quite a recipe for a story. Hmm, I may have to tackle it someday!

    1. Hello Hannah! I’m glad you liked the post.

      One of my story ideas is actually about an arranged marriage couple! I haven’t gotten very far with it (mostly because I have trouble focusing on more than one story at a time), but I’m really looking forward to subverting a lot of tropes with it.

      But I would be delighted to find your version on bookshelves sometime in the future, too. 😉

  3. Wonderful article that I stumbled on in my hopeless search for HF set in medieval era. Very few authors and even fewer movie makers take mindset into consideration when setting their stories in the past. I find it disrespectful, grating, and the storytelling gratuitous. It seems to me that many people, who claim they like historical fiction want/expect their modern views implanted into the past. Hilary Mantel, Sigrid Undset, S. Penman understood how wrong this was, but sadly these writers are lost to us.

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