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About the Writer:

Victoria Grossack, a former moderator of a critique group with Coffeehouse for Writers, has published articles and short stories for various magazines. She is creating a set of novels placed in Bronze Age Greece with her frequent collaborator, Alice Underwood. Visit Tapestry of Bronze, and read about Iokaste: The Novel of the Mother-Wife of Oedipus, just published, as well as their work in progress.

Victoria also teaches a workshop in Writing Historical Fiction for Coffeehouse for Writers. 

Yesterday's Stories and Today's Readers: Historical Fiction
Victoria Grossack
You want to set your novel in the past, to bring life to a bygone era in a way which you feel that only you can do it. You want to share your vision of characters or your rendering of events so that they take your readers to a previous time. In short, you want to write historical fiction.

The category “historical fiction” covers a wide spectrum of possibilities, from pre-history to the most recent past. But no matter which time and place you choose to visit, your readers are alive now. They have the attitudes and values of people today, and most will expect you to tell a good story according to today’s standards. What do you do when, if you faithfully depict the past, your readers will have trouble sympathizing with your setting? Think of Gone with the Wind and how it glosses over the horrors of slavery. What do you do when, if you portray the people of the past accurately, your readers can’t identify with your characters? What if they simply dislike them?

There is no single way of dealing with this conflict, because yesterday’s stories run the gamut, as do today’s readers. But they are issues to consider as you begin to write, because the answers have an important influence on how you structure your novel. Let’s consider several examples and how different problems have been handled:

Case Study 1: Disney’s animated movie, Hercules.

Hercules isn’t historical fiction but an animated film for kids. Still, it illustrates some of the difficulties of making a story from the past suitable to the audience of the present. The “traditional” story of Hercules has all sorts of problems for Disney’s traditional target market (young children and their parents). In the traditional version, Hercules is born out-of-wedlock and his stepmother, Hera, treats him poorly. What did Disney do? They removed the offending elements. In their version, Hercules’ parents are Zeus and Hera. The bad guy is Hades, the Lord of the Dead, who is creepy anyway.

So that’s one option: change the events of the story to suit your audience.

Case Study 2: Jean Auel’s series The Clan of the Cave Bear

This is a story of Ayla, a young Cro-Magnon girl who is adopted by a tribe of Neanderthals, and then later in the series spends time with various groups of Cro-Magnons with their own customs and prejudices. All the novels in the series take place about 30,000 years ago, a time period for which most readers have no expectations, and practically no points of reference. Auel helps her readers access the story by making Ayla appealing to today’s readers. Ayla is gifted with the highest moral standards of today, the intelligence of today, even the attitudes of today – and she even meets the standards of beauty of today: tall, blond, athletic but curvy.

This technique is fairly common: A character that we can identify with because of her modern ideas, has to deal with the prejudices and obstacles of the past, setting up a conflict where the reader’s sympathies are gained immediately. A few readers object to the lack of plausibility – for example, over a space of a few years Ayla discovers flint, arrows, animal husbandry and makes huge steps forward in medicine – but if enough readers enjoy the story, why not?

So that’s another technique: make your main character modern in thoughts and feelings.

Case Study 3: Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent

This novel takes a few verses out of Genesis and expands on them to create a novel from the point of view from Dinah, the only daughter of Jacob (he had twelve sons). Now, no matter how you write a novel based on a story out of the Bible, you’re going to offend someone, simply because people have such strong and differing views about the Bible. How does Diamant deal with this issue? First, she makes the protagonists, who are the women – Dinah, of course, but also Leah, Rebecca, Zilpah and Bilhah – as appealing and sympathetic to the readers as possible. This appeal of the main characters makes some of the other characters – mostly males -- less sympathetic.

Second, she does offend some people. Given her choice of subject, she can’t help it. If you choose to write about a subject that people find controversial, do your best, and then thicken your skin. If enough people read your book, you will offend someone.

So here we have another approach: Be deliberately controversial.

Case Study 4: Traveller: A Novel, Richard Adams

Even if the events you wish to portray center around a person, you may choose to make someone else the main character. Traveller, the horse of Robert E Lee, was a most unusual choice, although perhaps not so strange for Richard Adams, who reached bestselling status with Watership Down, his book about bunnies. Shifting the point of view enables you to create sympathy and reader identification when the main character is either unpleasant (not true of Robert E. Lee) or already very well known (true of Robert E. Lee).

So here we have a fourth approach: Choose a different point of view.

All of these approaches can be applied in other types of fiction, but they are especially critical in historical fiction. You can use more than one, or choose to use none at all. They are but techniques to help you make the stories of yesterday relevant to the readers of today.

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