Speculative historical fiction

I meant to add to my recent post about genres that the Waters of Time series works as historical fiction too, in a way. My characters spend a good part of each book immersed in a world or worlds of the past, but their own world is our future. Which means both lots of historical research and lots of making stuff up prediction of things that might happen (I sincerely hope they don’t, actually. I should probably say up front that I invented most of my 21st- and 22nd-century during the Bush administration. And oops, there goes impartiality; sorry for anyone who ended up here by searching on “Tea Party”).

Writing about the future falls, properly, under “speculative fiction.” I’d say that writing about the past does as well; certainly in neither case does the maxim “write what you know” apply. I can do tons of research (I don’t know how to measure the weight of research, though some days it feels extremely heavy) but I can’t ever tell for sure if what I write as a result is anywhere close to the truth, or even what “the truth” means. For me, it’s important to get the facts about the past as right as possible, but it’s much more important to get the tone right, to let the characters speak with voices that may not be authentic – any more than the 20th-21st-century BBC or Oxbridge accents of British actors playing 18th-century characters are authentic – but feel authentic; and yet not in a way that confirms expectations bred by too much bad historical fiction or BBC accents on TV dramas. It does help – and this is where I deviate from the process of writing a historical novel – to have observers who come out of another time period altogether, who have done a lot of the same research I did but don’t look at it with 20th-century eyes, and who can be the readers’ advocates while still having their own set of illustrative reactions. I purposefully set up the narrative in Time for Tea to show Olivia’s changing perspective on both the preparation for time jumps and the experience of them; by the second book, she’s a veteran, and there’s not nearly as much about trying on costumes and learning to tolerate local customs.

While writing Time for Tea, I learned how to practice an immersion technique (well, semi-immersion; one has to live one’s life) that helped with tone and characterization: basically, I read 18th-century literature and little else while establishing the voices. So while Olivia was reading Richardson and Fielding, so was I, along with Smollett and Sterne and Swift and so forth. And a lot of poetry. And okay, Jane Austen, even though she’s early 19th, and Patrick O’Brian, even though he’s 20th-century writing about the early 19th, but his voices are great.

It took me a few books to realize that each of them wraps itself around a literary ancestor (while, you know, waving its posterior in the breeze). For Time for Tea, it’s definitely the 18th-century novel, though I hope I look at the reformed rakes and virtuous heroines with a jaundiced eye. (If it piques your interest: Time and Fevers, Shakespeare and Elizabethan/Jacobean drama; Time Goes By, “Casablanca” and the WWII narrative; Not Time’s Fool, the fairy tale.) That’s hardly all that’s going on, of course, but it is kind of fun to tease out source material.

There’s also the interesting matter of deciding how much one’s research should show, which can be a bit like debating fashion and whether or not it includes displaying underwear. In my opinion, good historical fiction gives readers lots of information by plonking them down in the middle of it and asking them to splash around, not forcing them to float on a sea of index cards. I hope I haven’t erred either on the side of providing too many inflatable side-saddles or of… oh, I’m tired of this metaphor. All a writer can really do is try to get the balance right, and hope that readers enjoy speculating about the past just as much as you do.


One thought on “Speculative historical fiction

  1. […] Speculative historical fiction (ericahsmith.wordpress.com) […]

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