The Composition of Fiction is a task that frustrates and thrills the writer, sometimes more of one than the other, and occasionally both at the same time. As difficult as effective story telling can be, writing in a particular genre can add new challenges and difficulties. Being strictly a literary fiction writer, I have stayed away from so many of the fantasy and sci-fi efforts, as well as the thriller, horror, and supernatural niches.
But what I have written is historical fiction. My first novel, HEIRLOOM, is set in 1909 Sicily. My second book, DROVER, is in Weatherford, Texas in the 1850s. And the novel I’m working on now, SEDITION, is placed in first century Jerusalem and Rome. Only PRINCE has a more recent setting, 2001 in LA. Historical fiction can be a pleasure to read but a headache to write. There are unique considerations for the author who would go back to another place and time.
You can’t put stuff in your story that would not have been around at the time. Captain Ahab cannot determine his position by GPS, nor can Santiago use a digital depth finder to locate fish. It might seem obvious can it can sometimes be hard to avoid. In DROVER, my main character is buying barbed wire for his ranch. I found out later that barbed wire was not invented until the 1880s. Oops!
People do not talk in Colonial New England the way they talked in Louis XVIs Paris, and none of them speak like a depression era fruit picker in California. That is why the dialogue differs between Hawthorne, Dumas, and Steinbeck. So if you want to write three different stories, each one set in a different time and place, their speech patterns and vocabulary must reflect their world. That is why Twain and Tolstoy read differently, and yet both are excellent at composing conversations.
This requires research. I’ve had to look into the lives of far off places, but also for the time congruent with my story. What was Palermo like at the turn of the century? Was life in ancient Rome that much different from Jerusalem? You need to know the layout of the city, the names of important buildings, and the geographical terrain. I remember reading months worth of Harper’s Bizarre from the 1880s and 1890s to learn from first hand accounts of the liberation of Palermo under Garibaldi in 1870. This is what it takes to get it right.
Like the dialogue, your narrative voice needs to fit the time and place for your book. This is especially true of your narrator is told from the first person by one of your characters, but it is still a consideration even for omniscient third person story telling. The narrative voice is believable if it sounds like someone telling a tale from circumstances familiar with that person. We need to believe they came from that world. So don’t give a Southern tone to the narrator of a Victorian tale, or a regal formalism to the story of Missouri farmers.
What other struggles do you see in historical literature? Tell me your thoughts in the Comment section below.