Required Elements of Authentic Historical Fiction – by Ayesha F. Hamid

Historical fiction must be authentic in order to pull the reader in, so that writers who create works in this genre should consider how their work can be as authentic as possible. In order to effectively emulate specific worlds in historical fiction, the writer must research and know the world that they are trying to recreate because members of specific societies and cultures have unique ways of interacting with their environment and each other.

In writing historical fiction, there are a number of ways that authors can add authenticity to their work. I will focus on four essential qualities that make characters and their interactions more genuine. In order to achieve authenticity, and therefore believability, a work must: use appropriate language for the time period, be correct in the way characters were able (or unable) to speak/interact with each other in terms of class, race, gender, etc, avoid inserting contemporary ways of thinking or behavior into an era in which such behavior/interaction was unheard of, and make sure that the backdrop with which characters will interact is historically accurate. Possession by A.S. Byatt, Feig by Richard Bank, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, and Immortal by Traci Slatton are all books that adhere to these characteristics.

In the following paragraph from Byatt’s Possession, we see many of the requisites for authentic interaction in historical fiction. Two fictional poets, one male and the other female communicate with each other through letters, and their interaction speaks to the time period, emulating how men and women would have communicated with each other in the Victorian era.

My dear Friend,

If I address you So – it is for the Last Time as well as for the First. We have rushed down a Slope – I at least have rushed – where we might have descended more circumspectly – or Not at All. It has been borne in upon me that there are dangers in our continued conversation – I fear I lack delicacy in saying so – I see no good way out indeed – I reproach you with nothing – not myself neither – unless with an indiscreet confessional – and of what then – that I loved my father, and was set upon writing an epic? But the world would not look well upon such letters – between a woman living in a shared solitude as I do – and a man – even if that man were a great and wise poet,” (Byatt, 184).

In this fictional letter, we see quite a few elements of authenticity. The word choice is specific, as well as distinct from contemporary language. The female poet refers to a lack of delicacy, something having been borne, reproaching another, among other similar and specific markers of language. It would be uncommon to hear anyone speaking like this today.

Noting that the “world would not look well upon such letters – between a man and a woman living in a shared solitude as I do,” this work of fiction also tells us the way men and women interacted with each other, as well as the way that people interacted with their society. In this passage we see a woman who is careful with the way she interacts with others for fear of societal disapproval. It is clear that Byatt was able to mirror the world in which her story is situated by researching, understanding, and then creating language, dialogue, and word usage that emulated the time in question.

If the writer of this passage did not have a better understanding of how men and women interacted with each other in this time, then they could have imposed their contemporary view of gender relations into the writing. If this was the case, then maybe the two poets would have gone out on a date at a local coffee shop. This type of scene would have destroyed the believability of the story. Luckily, in Possession, the writer made sure that characters acted in a way that makes sense for the time period in question.

Consider another passage taken from Traci Slatton’s Immortal:

I had never before held a sheet of paper, which was far too precious for a street urchin. In the meantime, when I went out into Florence, I sought information about Master Giotto. He had said he would return and wanted to see me, and I believed him. He had an honor about him that was obvious even to a mongrel like me. When he came back I wanted to impress him with my knowledge of his incomparable work. On a cold day after Christmas, I went to the monk Friar Pietro, who had once taken me into the Church Ognissanti to show me the glorius Madonna panel that Giotto had painted there.

“Asperges me, Domine, hyssop, et mundabor: Lavabis me, et super nivem dealbabor. Misere mei, Deus, Secundum Magnam Misericordium Tuam,” I called brightly, when I spied him sweeping the path outside the austere stone façade of the old church of Santa Maria Maggiore…

In this passage, we see some of the same elements that make historical fiction authentic. The author acquaints the reader with the time period in question, and we see that it is a time where you could talk to a monk one minute and a master artist in the next. It was also a time when everyone, even the poor, were familiar with Latin because the church was a central part of their lives.

Slatton also shows us how the different classes were treated in this time. The phrase Master Giotto means more than just master artist. It is a marker of his rank in society. On the other hand, the main character, who is sometimes called Luca Bastardo (bastard) refers to himself as a “mongrel.” The reader can infer that this is Luca’s view of himself after he has internalized society’s treatment towards him.

The importance of words extends to other languages when a writer may choose to use an alternate to English. This is done to add depth in the descriptions thereby making the story more authentic. In the above example, we see the writer using Latin to show that individuals living in this time were more familiar with the language. What people call each other and how they describe or refer to themselves can also tell us a lot about the time period in question.

Writers should keep the following in mind when describing their specific time period: how would a specific character be seen by the world, would this person be powerful or powerless, strong or weak, knowledgeable or ignorant, how would the world react to this person, based on what you know about the time period in question, would people find it inappropriate to make fun of someone because they – have a disability, don’t have parents, are different in some way, or would the society in question find it to be typical to call someone “bastardo” or “village idiot,” etc? Members of society can be dehumanized, and this fact may be something that is important to the narrative.

Richard Bank’s Feig is a book that describes, in detail, the dehumanization of people. It effectively utilizes elements that are necessary for authentic historical fiction. Consider the following paragraph.
“It was sometime late in May 1944…We were put to work outside Budapest. Conditions were very harsh, you know. We slept on the ground. Nothing over our heads. If it rained, we got wet….the gendarmes fed us two meal a day – gruel in the morning and soup with bits of meat at night. We also were given stale bread that you soaked in the soup to soften it….But I was hungry then, David. Always, I was hungry.” (Bank 32).

Accurately situating the characters within their time period and setting, the author tells us that they are working in Budapest and dealing with harsh conditions. The gendarmes, which is the correct historical term, feed the prisoners gruel and stale bread. Bank adds a detail which make the character’s speech more believable; one can tell that Feig’s first language is not English because he inverts the placement of words and finishes sentences with phrases like “you know.” Instead of saying “I was always hungry,” Feig says “always, I was hungry.” So, other important questions for a writer to ask are: where is this character from, how did this character grow up, does this character speak in a unique way, and what drives this character?

In order to write effective historical fiction ask yourself the preceding questions as well as: what conflicts did people face in their time, what did they eat, what nourishment or comfort was available to them, and were they speaking in a language that was not their first? Note that questions surrounding primary language can be particularly important in places like Europe where people often spoke and still speak more than one language. Language is just one of the things a writer should consider when trying to create an effective work of historical fiction.

So, this genre of fiction is unique in that the story has to be based in a setting and context that considers historical fact. To write historical fiction is to try to create a unique world within a past that actually existed, and the created world has to mirror a past that once was. Four specific actions can help a writer to make their historical fiction more believable. These include: using appropriate language for the time period, being correct in the way characters were able (or unable) to speak/interact with each other in terms of class, race, gender, etc, avoiding insertion of contemporary ways of thinking or behavior into an era in which such behavior/interaction was unheard of, and making sure that the backdrop with which characters interact with is historically accurate. By following these guidelines, you will create characters, settings, and situations which will have your readers questioning whether they are reading fiction, or something that actually took place.

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