Something Alarmingly Plausible, No Doubt: Writing the Past

This is the companion essay to my previous “Writing the Future” in which I hope to outline some of the similarities and differences between historical fiction and future-fiction, or at least how they relate to my own brand of writing the past from the perspective of the future.

Okay, let me expand on that for a moment. Time travel science fiction has advantages and disadvantages as compared to straight-up historicals: for one thing, it tends to double the writer’s work, even if you’re working with an alternate present-day world in which time machines have been invented, instead of setting the story sometime in the future. In either case, you’ve got to work out how the world your characters are traveling from functions. I’m leaving out time travel fantasy here, since in that genre the actual transfer in time is usually accomplished by *waves hands* and is generally an exceptional occurrence (and a great surprise to the protagonists) rather than part of an industry and a factor in society at large. But in either sort of situation the writer also has to create scenarios in the past that pass muster as historical fiction, which means research, just as inventing the future does. And given that characters may travel to multiple years in the past in just one book (wait till Time Goes By) the research can often triple and quadruple, as compared to historical fiction where the action takes place in only one period of time and frequently in one geographic area.

However, time travel fiction has advantages of perspective. For the most part, the point-of-view characters in time travel books are the time travelers themselves (I made an exception in “The Opposite of an Epitaph,” but you’ll notice that’s a short story; keeping it up for a whole novel would be tough). This provides an observational viewpoint that can’t exist in regular historical fiction – makes it easier to explain things, in other words, because the reader is learning about the period along with the protagonist and isn’t expected to dive in without any instruction – and allows for a modern slant on past happenings (as long as you allow for what “modern” might mean x number of years in our future). Feminism without unnaturally provocative heroines, for example. Opportunities to make gibes about revolutions that haven’t happened yet. Sorrow over cities-to-be-drowned.

So that’s the genre I’m working with, which makes my job a bit different from that of a writer of pure historical fiction. But we have a similar purpose, which is to convince readers that our characters are really existing in the real past, or at least in a simulacrum that feels real enough. There’s a LOT of conversation out there about how rigorous research needs to be and how it’s to be presented in historical fiction; I recently read this example on Vacuous Minx regarding the historical romance genre – also see the same blogger’s post about different levels of accuracy and world-building, from “wallpaper historicals” to “single-era historical serious.” But you’ll see the same back-and-forth in any discussion among readers and writers: how much should we care about historical accuracy in fiction? How important is it to get the details right? Does it matter more that the characters are realistic or that the setting is? Et cetera.

As a reader, I think I can swing from one end of the spectrum to the other depending on how much I know about the era portrayed and/or how enjoyable the read is otherwise; sometimes historical errors bother me a lot and sometimes not at all. This goes for television and movies too; I am a devoted fan of the delightful “Sleepy Hollow” because of the character interactions, even while calling out “What? What!?” each time the show perpetrates another blatant historical inaccuracy, like making early-17th-century people speak Middle English or deciding that everything in the Revolutionary War (or anything any important 18th-century American ever did) happened at more or less the same time. (Franklin: kite experiment: 1752, okay? And probably not in the nude, either.) And I can read novels in which 21st-century ideas about race and class and gender spout out of 19th-century mouths, keeping in mind that some exceptional people did anticipate the ethical concepts we regard as essential today. (And that many people today haven’t got there yet, and that we may well backslide in the future.)

I’m very fond of historical accuracy, and I strive to achieve it in my books. But I’m not an absolute stickler for fact either over truth or over narrative convenience, or what I hope is a combination of the two. Since I’m a lifelong lover of mystery fiction, let me lead into this with two examples from the classics: Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time and Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Tey’s book (which everyone should read) centers around police detective Alan Grant’s investigation (while confined to a hospital bed) of the life and death of Richard III, and his discovery that the facts are quite different from what he’d been taught in school. For a while, Grant thinks he’s made a great research advance, and then he realizes that scholars have known about the ambiguities of Richard’s competence and morality for a long while; they just haven’t penetrated into the collective consciousness of the ordinary person. He comes up with a term for persistent historical myths, “Tonypandy” (after the Welsh miners’ riots of 1910-11 and the appealing if inaccurate rumor that troops fired at strikers) and vows to combat this influence wherever he sees it. Which is a grand thing to do, and one we should all attempt, though it is worth keeping in mind that Shakespeare wrote a really good play about the ahistorical and completely villainous Richard, not that we should or could emulate him. As Patrick O’Brian says in the introduction to The Surgeon’s Mate: “Great men can afford anachronism, and indeed it is rather agreeable to find Criseyde reading the lives of the saints or Hamlet going to school at Wittenberg; but perhaps the ordinary writer should not take many liberties with the past. If he does, he sacrifices both authenticity and the willing suspension of disbelief…” (though also note O’Brian’s request that the reader should grant some license in the matter of small details).

In Gaudy Night (which everyone should also read) part of the plot involves a man named Arthur Robinson, a historian who in the latter stages of writing a thesis discovered a piece of information that invalidated his central theory, and suppressed it for his own convenience and potential livelihood (but he gets caught and suffers for it, and in the book there are some useful discussions about the nature of truth and humaneness, and so forth). Arthur Robinson comes up now and then as an example of why we writers should strive to get everything right in our work, because if we ignore or obscure a fact, we are committing fraud. And… I don’t agree with this. In a scholarly context, yes, of course it’s a bad idea to perpetrate inaccuracies. But in fiction, sometimes the broader picture triumphs; sometimes the narrative wins out over the details.

It’s a fine balance, a careful dance. Am I misleading the reader dangerously if I build a canal a year early? (probably not) or ramp up the intensity of tulip trading rituals a year or two earlier than the shift occurred in truth? (possibly). Does it make it worse or better that I do so with the intent of including as a character a historical figure who would not have been available if I’d set the story a year later? That’s the kind of wondering and wiggling that has to take place, and it’s no wonder I sometimes fixate on what I know I can get right (my books are absurdly accurate about moon phases on particular dates, and on what day of the week it was, with proper notice of Julian or Gregorian calendars. Though I didn’t go so far as to check the tides; I’m sorry). I’ve also developed a pretty good sense for when I should be looking things up, which is a useful skill and likely learned from serendipity, like the moment in the early days writing Time for Tea when I wondered briefly whether Armitage’s butler Lewis would really come to the door carrying a feather duster – not whether it was in character for a butler to do so, because it obviously isn’t and he’s properly abashed, but whether he would have possessed a feather duster to begin with; so I looked it up (parenthetically, the Internet makes this so easy to do; pity the historical writer of yore) and found that feather dusters weren’t invented until the 19th century. Now, this doesn’t mean that someone clever couldn’t have stuck some feathers into a handle and used the device years or centuries earlier, and they probably did, but there was no reason to suppose Lewis had done so, so I gave him a rag.

But we can’t always manage to do this; we’re all going to make mistakes, and readers are going to catch us, and even Patrick O’Brian was a touch defensive about the eau de cologne. And if we’re trying to cover a multitude of historical periods in one book, how much research, and in what depth, is necessary to prevent goofs from occurring? I tend to decide that I can rely on online research (and yes, even Wikipedia, at least to start with) for periods my characters spend minimal time in, and plunge in deeper when they are staying in one place or time for a long while, which means reading authoritative secondary sources and then burying myself in literature or primary source material when it’s important to get voices and characterizations right. And that’s what I think is most important – not the factual details but the people, the way they think and feel and speak; and this goes for both my time travelers and my characters native to the past. In a way, the methods by which my future-living characters prepare for a jump parallel my own research methods and goals.

Here, by way of analogy, is what my character Charles Constantine has to say to Olivia about time travel and George Merrill’s place in it, in a metaphor relevant to his own scholarly interests.

” …the twentieth-century studios used to employ actors on a contract basis, and assign them to projects depending on the impact they wanted to have on audiences. There were different kinds of actors, you see; it seemed to be something intrinsic to the person as much as a question of skill or training. Some of them were what they called character actors. They effaced their own personality; they took on whatever role they were playing completely. You might not even recognize them from movie to movie, at least not at first glance. We have jumpers like that—jumpers are essentially actors, you know. ….

There were workmanlike actors, too: experts at accents and false noses and swordplay, who convinced their audiences purely by technique. We have jumpers of that sort, too, probably the majority. They do a good job, and no one ever catches them out in an anachronism, but they don’t improvise well; you have to give them a script, so to speak. ….

Then… oh, the studios’ most important product: the stars. Bigger than life, flawlessly beautiful—or at least devastatingly sexy—you could hardly call them actors, some of them, but audiences flocked to see them, just gazing at the screen and fantasizing. Guaranteed box office. Meaning”—he gave her an apologetic wave—“they were sure to make money. Not, however, a quality to be encouraged in the time jumper. Draws far too much attention. ….

Every once in a while, an actor—or a time jumper—comes along who manages something beyond what all the others achieve. Not a star, because not quite enough sex appeal. Although George is surprisingly… well, never mind. Not a character actor, exactly: unable to hide the essential self to that degree. But able to take on a role and play it, to blend his own personality into that role until they are one and the same. And not a technician, per se, in fact prone to make occasional errors. But the errors don’t matter, because what defines that actor, or that time jumper, is plausibility. People want to believe in him. It’s as though—and I’ll cease and desist with the analogy now—there is a George Merrill who belongs to every century, to every place and time, and who is waiting for our George to slip inside him when he arrives. There are external differences, but it’s always George, and he’s always right; he always fits.”

And that, I think, sums up what I try to do in regard to historical accuracy in fiction. I’m not going for the workmanlike, slogging attention to precision (though I want my work to be as accurate, and more importantly, as truthful as possible). I’m trying not to be dependent on larger-than-life personalities to overshadow all those boring little historical facts (largely because history is not boring!). I love getting the atmosphere of a place and time right, and making each place and time different from all the others. But what I really want is for readers to be taken in – in the sense of absorption rather than in the sense of falsehood, but not without acknowledging the occasional necessity of the latter. I want you to feel that what you’re reading is right, not to be able to look it up and check that it is. I want history that’s plausible – and if it takes a touch of wallpaper and flimflammery and wild George-like improvisation to make that happen (see subject line – my favorite self-quote), that’s perfectly okay with me.

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