Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Joys of Writing Historical Fiction

I recently mentioned on a Christian fantasy blog I read that I never really intend to write fantasy again.

Sienna, author of the blog, responded:

"...who knows, you may end up writing fantasy again! I'm sure if you do you'll find it a refreshing break from all the meticulous research."

I do not quote her because I want tear this apart. I quote it because I want to explain something.

I get this reaction from fantasy and science fiction writers a lot. They, in general, see research as fetters. Chains and limitations on the imagination. So of course, I must be some super-writer to endure these miles of research on clothing, Medieval religion, peasant buildings, government structure, kings, nobles, rebellions...

Originally, the phrases “historical accuracy” and “research” were somewhat synonymous with “choke chain” in my mind, I admit. The reason I went with a pseudo-medieval human fantasy in the first place was because I didn’t want to research. One of the many things that book taught me, however, was I can’t really do fantasy, or at very least do it well.

“Why?!” gasp the fantasy adherents. “There is such freedom!”

Well, true. There is freedom. There’s too much, for me. The canvas is too wide-open, stretching for miles. I, quite simply, am not that good with just making up cultures. They remind me too much of real cultures and end up looking fairly alike.

So, deadly research is the only other way. I’m doomed. No, actually, not really.

Think about it this way.

The fantasy writer embraces the open canvases, painting deep, rich cultures, creatures, histories, and place their epic tales in this canvas. It’s amazing, really.

But don’t see musty books when you think of the historical fiction writer researching. Imagine instead a canvas already full of rich cultures and people, who have thousands of years of history, and just as many thousand stories begging to be told. Research is the discovery. The fantasy writer creates a wild jungle down to the tiniest detail: foliage, bugs, ferocious creatures, and the tribes that live there. The historical fiction writer helicopters in and discovers the foliage, bugs, ferocious creatures, and the tribes that live there.

Add to this the fact that this jungle actually exists or actually existed. You’re walking among the tales of humanity, God’s ultimate creation. There’s something awe-inspiring about that, something magical in recreating the ordinary life of 800 years ago. The circumstances are vastly different, but they are still people, human beings capable of so much good and so much evil.

One of the greatest joys I experienced in the switch from fantasy to historical fiction was the realm of the real, living God. I didn’t have to attempt to allegorize Him or decide if I can fit Him in my world. I am in His world, discovering His world and His creations with characters who can really know Him, not an attempted copy of who He is. It brings it all that much closer to my heart.

Fantasy (and science fiction) writers dream of a world that never will be. Historical fiction writers dream of the world that was. Both see how these worlds relate to the one we actually live in. Both have their challenges and rewards. Both are beautiful.

But I am a historical fiction writer, through and through.

Don’t imagine me in fetters.

I’m free: discoverer and explorer of God’s beautiful earth and his breathtaking story--History.


Charissa said...

Actually, sci-fi is a lot more like historical fiction than fantasy is. It takes a lot of research to make a believable world that follows or at least emulates scientific laws.
I love finding new facts to integrate or delete from my semi-made-up worlds. So, as a christian sci-fi writer, I find myself copying God's creation too. I just try to add more ridiculous bits.

And then there's (semi-realistic) time travel, which I could probably say takes more research than historical fiction. Rules have to be made for why traveling in time is possible at all, which ideally incorporates lots of interesting physics. Every time period visited must be researched. Any characters from different times have to be researched as well, politics and governments and generally people have to be extrapolated to fit into possible futures and alternate realities, as well as all the climate change and animals evolving slightly and stuff.
And then there's studying the bible and what people say about it to figure out when to put apocalypses in each reality or different story world, and what happens to time travelers that go back to bible times and what happens to aliens and sentient robots....

So what I'm trying to say with all that rambliness is, sci-fi can be quite research-heavy too. XD

And you are very right; research is awesomely fun and rewarding.

Great post. I love reading your blog, thanks for writing it. :D

~ Love from Dustbin

Hannah said...

Very nicely put, Nai! HisFic is an amazing genre, one I normally prefer over Fantasy myself.

And most of the time I simply love research.

Nairam said...

@Charissa: Wow! I hadn't thought of all of that, but I really see what you mean. I don't have much experience with sci-fi--my experience generally leans towards the "just spout stuff that sounds sorta scientific" (at least, I THINK that's what Doctor Who does...) or dystopia/literary type, which has less science.

Apparently, where I should classify it is really somewhere in between the two. :)

Also, have to say: love the sci-fi CHRISTIAN writers to tackle that atheist-ruled world. You're awesome. ;) Thanks for your input!

@Hannah: Yep. Especially when you start to get a fairly good working knowledge and figure out where to find the right resources. Easy cruising, right now. Starting off _can_ be hard.


Godsgirl said...

Great post, Nai! :) <3

Leah Good said...

Really beautiful, Nai. I love your thought on how research for his-fic is being in God's world discovering His world and His creations. Thanks.

Cait said...

I agree: research doesn't have to be fetters. It can actually be fun! I LOVE historical-fiction, but i haven't written a proper book in that genre because of the research. It's not enough just to research it...you have to get it right (well, at least as right as you can). Pressure, huh?! :) But someday I plan to. History is amazing... :)

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