Saturday, February 27, 2010

Some Thoughts on Writing Historical Fiction

When my novel The Night's Dark Shade was published last November I had a lady ask me why I wrote "romance novels." Let me just say that I do not write romance novels; I do not even read romance novels, unless I am asked to review one. Romance novels usually have a half clothed heroine on the cover, some historical background for atmosphere, with the emphasis on bodice-ripping love scenes.

Historical fiction, on the other hand, has the emphasis on creating accurate historical settings and characters in an effort to make the past come to life for the contemporary reader. Here is the Wikipedia definition:
Historical fiction is a sub-genre of fiction that often portrays fictional accounts or dramatization of historical figures or events. Writers of stories in this genre, while penning fiction, nominally attempt to capture the spirit, manners, and social conditions of the persons or time(s) presented in the story, with due attention paid to period detail and fidelity....

Historical fiction presents readers with a story that takes place during a notable period in history, and usually during a significant event in that period. Historical fiction often presents actual events from the point of view of people living in that time period.

In some historical fiction, famous events appear from points of view not recorded in history, showing historical figures dealing with actual events while depicting them in a way that has not been previously recorded. Other times, a historical event is used to complement a story's narrative, occurring in the background while characters deal with situations (personal or otherwise) wholly unrelated to that historical event. Sometimes, the names of people and places have been in some way altered.

I do not mean to sound disparaging of romance novels, since when I first started out to write The Night's Dark Shade I thought I would make it a tame sort of PG-13 bodice-ripper. I was told by an agent in New York that if I wrote a romance novel, instead of my usual historical fiction about the French Revolution, than she could make a lot of money for me. So about nine years ago I decided to try my hand at a romance novel, based on a story that came to mind when I was in Lourdes in 1994. However, as the story grew and the characters took life, and as I delved into the theological conflicts and liturgical aberrations of the time, then I knew there were too many important issues at stake to water it down into a rabid romance just for the sake of profit. I think Our Lady had her hand on me and wanted me to write something that would contain solid spirituality, while exploring the ravages of heresy in both society and individuals. The days of the Albigensians/Cathars were times that mirrored our own. In that way, history becomes relevant to the present. I hope that my novel helps people not only to understand the past but to gain insight into the issues of our own time.

One of the challenges of writing The Night's Dark Shade is that it is set in a time infamous for Catholics Behaving Badly. How does a Catholic writer deal with such moments of history, moments that are readily exploited by enemies of the Church in books and films? Do we gloss over the truth? As I told author Catherine Delors in a recent interview, only the reality of the past can help us to understand the realities of the present. I believe that we need never be afraid of the truth of history, no matter how ugly it might be, because we have to learn from it. If we present the history with accuracy then the truth of the faith will shine through in spite of the failings of the brethren. But prayer has to accompany our literary journey, as well as an understanding of Church history and teaching. In the darkest times there were saints, there were martyrs, both famous and obscure. As I wrote in the Preface to Trianon: "the darkness of the night makes the stars shine with an ever greater resplendence."

(The full transcript of my CWCO chat on historical fiction is available HERE and HERE.)



Julygirl said...

"The Nights Dark Shade" was many faceted, and romance was only part of it. In "The Night's Dark Shade" it had people behaving badly and some of them happened to be Catholic. However our culture likes to play "gotcha" with Catholics. One can no more expect all religious people to be noble and upright than one can expect all parents to be gentle and fair with their children.

Anonymous said...

_The Nights Dark Shade_ does incorporate a romantic tale into the main plot, but certainly it is far above the base romance novel genre. Eegads. I think the lady who thought it was a romance novel almost certainly had not finished reading the story.

elena maria vidal said...

Good points, JulyGirl.

Gette, I don't think the lady had even read the book at all; she just heard about it and jumped to conclusions.

Tristan Robin said...

I had to laugh at the woman's question.

I read a lot of historical fiction - and am often getting asked why I'm reading romance novels LOL

I have never read a romance novel in my life.

elena maria vidal said...

People do not seem to realize the difference!

Nicole Schauder said...

Thanks a lot for the transcript of your interview. Very inspiring for start-up writers like us. Especially those who are bent on the historical romance genre sans the body-ripping.:)

PS. Found this, and thought you might enjoy, if you haven't seen it already.

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Nicole! Yes, isn't that a magnificent exhibit!

Enbrethiliel said...


I've read my fair share of Romance novels and don't think I would have mistaken The Night's Dark Shade for one!

While there are some historically honest Historical-set Romances, the majority are what Romance readers themselves admit are "Wallpaper Historicals." Those stories may seem set in the past, but they have characters so thoroughly modern that all the historical details are mere accessories to them. (In fairness, I've also seen this in some "high-brow" Historical Fiction.)

Yet I think the biggest difference, Elena, is that your main intention was not to write a historically accurate love story, but, as you have said, to make the past come alive in a way that illuminates the present.

A regular Romance novel with a title like The Night's Dark Shade would milk the imagery for clandestine meetings in shadowy gardens or similar associations; but what your title makes me think of how much of the past or of Church doctrine is in darkness until someone can shine some light upon it.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

I believe that we need never be afraid of the truth of history, no matter how ugly it might be, because we have to learn from it.

I second that. Leo XIII was (in German) quoted as saying:

Gott braucht nicht unsere Lügen.

Anonymous said...
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elena maria vidal said...

Oh, but E. I did want to write a love story. And it is a very romantic story. It just does not quite fit into the *romance genre*, the type of book that one finds on the way to the check-out counters here in the States. Not enough technical bodice-ripping, but a very passionate story nevertheless. Thanks for the clarifications and I, too, read all kinds of books when I was young.

Thank you, Hans, I love it when you write in German or Swedish.

I love romance, just not the pulp fiction type of the romance genre. As I told one of my cousins a few years ago, I am too much of a romantic to ever be considered a true intellectual.