A Rare Medium Well Done — The Sins in Writing Historical Fiction in the 21st Century
Like many of my contemporaries, I am often too concerned with the minutiae of my day over that of what might happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday. To paraphrase some anonymous pithy person (and the dozens who have stolen the same words for their own since), “Yesterday’s a history, tomorrow’s a mystery. All that matters is what you do in the moment.”
It is a failing, I admit, to be so blind to so many events that have come and gone before me. But then, the dead aren’t going anywhere, so why bother with dry facts and empty statistics? After speaking to hundreds of my own students, I can’t help but agree that learning history is, sometimes, just plain hard.
Enter the realm of historical fiction. It remains one of my earliest and most enduring passions, and one that I have discovered my own voice in creating for the last several years. To my knowledge, there is no simple definition for the genre (some define it as any piece written fifty years after the focused upon event).
But there remains something mystical that calls to me every time I am able to stumble across a new narrative written about an older world. More than any other genre, historical fiction becomes the perfect backdrop against which stories of every stripe and creed can be covered by a talented writer, uniting the past with the present in timeless observations.
So why are there so gosh-darn few of them anymore?
I have discovered in the course of my own personal readership that so many would-be historical epics are ruined by cardinal sins, two of which might be found below.
- The misapplication of present day values over those of historical societies
In the 21st century, I think you would find it highly unlikely to find many who would argue in favor of outlawed societal concepts such as human slavery or the wholesale slaughter of cultures or people. Within the conception of our modern-day society, we are educated in the value of human life, and its concurrent moral equivalence across cultures.
Things were not always as clear cut in previous cultures and worlds. History is rife with tragedies and murderous adversity that was perfectly acceptable in the context of the time period. Wrong by our modern standards, but acceptable by those who lived then.
Historical fiction, though a fantasy by its very title, has a duty to report both successes and failures as truthfully as any impartial witness. If an author would seek to spin a single, solitary, rebellious voice against the prevailing societal perspective, this is fine, even compelling, as narratives go. BUT there are more than a few present-day authors who recast entire societies and sections of the world to possess 21st century values and norms that are beyond those of what existed at the time.
Regrettably, this ends up detracting from the portrayal rather than enhancing it.
We’ve made mistakes in history. Accept it. You telling me a story of 17th century America where an entire town loathes the institution of slavery or champions equality of the sexes is not only world-breaking, it’s disrespectful to the errors of our ancestors.
Besides, it’s been done to death.
2. Overexposure of certain periods of time
There is a passage in Christian scripture that claims that there is nothing new under the sun. (It’s in Ecclesiastes for you bibliophiles out there.) Regrettably, such a comment could apply easily to the arena of historical fiction. With thousands of years of history, there seems to be several collection points of focus for writers: military history (usually exemplified by writers like Jeff Shaara), Greco-Roman history (such as Stephen Pressfield), and Victorian England (e.g. Phillipa Gregory).
We get it. Sweeping events affecting the entire world should, in theory, allow for a multitude of stories, but so many narratives fall in to describing the same cookie-cutter events, passing over and dooming so many other times to obscurity.
I recall my own first attempt to write a historical fiction piece, some short fiction on the flashpoint of the American experience on Lexington Green in 1776. I researched, invested my time and self into crafting what I hoped was something stirring and gratifying.
…then discovered my entire tale had already been written in Howard Fast’s April Morning.
So many others have had the same experience as I, making the same mistake in attempting to tell the same tale that has been told a dozen times over. Though there are those who would say differently, telling the same story cheapens the history from which it comes, not enhances it.
In a time when we are always looking for a unique view, why not turn to times less understood, times less explained? Not only will it enrich your own life in researching the backing for it, it will enrich your reader by giving a truly different perspective and not the same eight time periods covered by everyone else.
What’s the Solution to These Sins?
Though it may be unpopular to revisit painful memories and events of the past, the 21st century author needs to cling to the moment and details in the historical period under consideration. It is in the recognition of the mistakes and missteps of our forefathers and -mothers that we are elevated to not making those same mistakes.
We cannot pretend that we were always socially enlightened.
Neither is it necessary to focus on the same two dozen stories and written and read over and over. Let the World Wars become true history and not wedge fiction that sees the same, tired cliche told with the same, tired characters. Let the American Civil War veterans sleep at long last.
And for the love of God stop writing about Medieval/Victorian England.
World history is a rich tapestry of cultures and tales. Find the niche that is unfilled (there are plenty of them) and plant your flag there.
Tomorrow may still be a mystery, but there’s no longer any reasonable cause for the history to be an enigma.