Elizabethan London

Elizabethan London
Tyburn was an infamous execution spot west of London, used since medieval times. The Tyburn "tree" - a unique, multi-person gallows - erected in 1571 became a popular public spectacle, drawing crowds of thousands.Tyburn Tree blog is less blood-thirsty but hopefully topical, interesting and informative, if slightly bent to my personal topics of interest - books, writing, history, technology, with a smattering of politics and dash of pop culture, science and the downright strange. So "take a ride to Tyburn" and see what happens...

Monday, March 18, 2013

Historical Fiction: Delving into the Age

"Kit Tyburn leaned on the bench, his back pressing against the canted timbered wall, surveying the four pasteboard cards in his hands critically.  A worn cyclopean knave of hearts gazed back, accompanied by two clubs, four hearts and a wistful diamond queen."  - Excerpt, The Jesuit Letter

Historical fiction is a genre that often carries the illusion of ease in its genetic code.  To the uninitiated, it is simpler to pull from the pages of history - you don't need to invent, you don't need to create, you just need to pillage the past.   It's all there for the taking.

The reality is that historical fiction requires hard research, a critical eye and the ability to parse from history the day-to-day norms and conditions that govern your characters and your settings.  History buffs are often well-versed, very particular and on occasion, will obsessively guard their "eras", noting any permutation or deviation with judicious care.  Obvious errors pull the reader out of the period and the setting, detracting from the story-line and the overall credibility of the tale.  Research, context and, more importantly, being able to reflect and mirror the feel for the era in the story, are critical elements in making historical fiction work.

That is not to say that you cannot bend history to suit story.  Indeed, it often becomes a necessity.  Good historical fiction winds its way through reality with deft prose and respect for the era and its fundamentals but in fiction, the need to cut, edit and interpret history to serve your plot comes up more often than you think.  Both geography and time need to bend to the will of the author if the story demands it but in a way that ideally respects the reader, the era and the circumstances.  You can move a hill, shift a date, add a character to a critical time and place, but you need to avoid anachronisms and blatant or egregious retro-fitting of history if you want to keep the interest of your readers, and your own credibility...

Writers of historical fiction often need to embed their story in as much reality as it can bear, but not too much.  Most readers don't really want a story that reflects a well-loved character dying of dysentery or an infection from a tooth abscess.  You don't need to know about the toiletry habits of the typical Roman, or how infrequently people in the Middle Ages bathed - unless it is specific and particular to advancing the plot.  When writing historical fiction, the copious research and meticulous attention needs to be levied with the need for story, advancing your plot, and a strong,  vivid and evocative tale to tell, not the reality of medieval sanitary conditions

Writers need to be careful that research doesn't overwhelm storyline.  It is very easy to suffer from excessive inclusion - the need to make certain that your depth of research is reflected on the page - driving the reader to distraction with miscellaneous detail and context that is unneeded and fails to drive the plot.  It is very easy to get distracted by the need to explain and the temptation, when a terrific piece of research needs to be incorporated into a scene, to make the scene about the research rather than the character or the story.  When an everyday event takes you days or weeks to research and plan, the urge to have that fictional moment encompass more to justify all the hard work that went into it, can be an easy and common trap for the writer.  The excerpt above opened a brief scene of card-play that took up a total of two and half pages, mostly dialogue, intended to advance the characters and their situation.  It also involved a significant amount of detailed research into playing cards, their use in Elizabethan England, the types of playing cards available and detailed rules for several different card games, research that included about thirty hands of primero at the kitchen table to get the gambling and betting elements correct.  The original version was almost double in length and covered several hands worth of play, until I re-read it and decided that the vast majority of non-primero playing readers would find it tedious.  Cut-down in its prime, the research lives but much reduced.  Similarly a scene with a dog-fight was cut entirely, even though the intriguing and fascinating world of badger-baiting did beckon seductively.

Historical fiction is best when the author is painting in the corners, dropping in the innocuous and oft un-noted details that help make the era and the landscape come alive in ways that the reader barely overtly notices, but builds and supports the overall world and setting.  It is found in the canted timber walls and the worn pasteboards, the sour warm ale and the mud-caked cobbles, the taste of spiced wine and the rancid stench of a urine-soaked alley.  The research must lead the writer, helping him enter into that world, where they can critically pick the elements and moments to entrap in prose, pulling the reader into their time-warp, into a world and an engrossing story.

It's all about painting in those corners.


  1. Excellent article. With the exception of "bodice rippers" readers of historical fiction are seeking an immersive experience, transportation to the past. Therefore it is important for the writer to know how many weevils might hide in hard tack but not necessary to pass the information on to the reader.

    1. I thoroughly disagree with your statement about "bodice rippers" (a term that is straight from the 1980s, btw). Historical romance uses history in the same way historical SFF uses history, or how historical mystery uses history--within its genre conventions. Meaning, historical romance uses history as seasoning for the romance as opposed to the main ingredient in the pot, and even then there is a wide variation in how each individual author chooses to use history.

      And I'd also push back against the rose-colored glasses view that historical fiction gives you an immersive experience, transportation to the past. Whose past? What past? Because you can pick up a book on one particular historical setting or historical personages, written across decades, and find the history contradicts itself based on author focus or agenda, access to resources, and audience tastes. Gone With the Wind is the biggest example of an author successfully transporting readers to the past and giving an immersive experience...in a completely biased and historically inaccurate fashion. Yet, the great success of this book and its convincing immersive experience has convinced millions of readers across the globe, that this is a genuine portrait of the South during the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras for over seventy years.