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Purpose to historical fiction?

For discussions of historical fiction. Threads that do not relate to historical fiction should be started in the Chat forum or elsewhere on the forum, depending on the topic.
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Michy
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Post by Michy » Fri December 31st, 2010, 9:02 pm

[quote=""Telynor""] the only way that I am going to be able to see a great part of the world are through the pages of books. [/quote] I think that's probably true for a lot of us. Unless some long-lost great-uncle (who doesn't even exist in my case! ;) ) leaves us a nice inheritance!

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Shield-of-Dardania
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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Tue January 25th, 2011, 10:53 am

[quote=""LoveHistory""]I read mostly for entertainment. Escaping into another place is entertainment for me. I like to learn too so learning is sometimes entertainment to me. I like fact-based fiction, and completely invented fiction.

There is so much variation within the HF genre that I don't really feel a need to lean one way or the other on this issue. Some books have more facts and history in them, others are blatant entertainment, most lie between the two.
[/quote]
I think LH has got it summed up rather nicely there. I buy a novel for entertainment too. I'd look somewhere else if I want hard, cold fact. I want a novel's writer to give me pleasure rather than wisdom.

That said, a certain amount of learning which could benefit your life won't do you any harm, so why not? Especially if it's weaved effortlessly and beautifully into the dialogue, action, narrative etc.

But it shouldn't take away anything from the pleasure of a casual, leisurely read. And I believe the writer should have the leeway and the prerogative to lean one way or the other, i.e. pro-fact or pro-entertainment, or remain about midway between both. Let his reader decide.

David Gemmel practically turned the entire Homeric version of Troy upside down, sideways and all around in his Troy trilogy. His Hector was golden haired rather than dark haired, his Priam was an egoistic womaniser, his Helen plain instead of beautiful, his Odysseus ugly and a major fibber. But David spinned a great tale, he got me into HF and I've remained an addict since then.
Last edited by Shield-of-Dardania on Tue January 25th, 2011, 10:57 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Rissa
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Post by Rissa » Fri May 13th, 2011, 11:35 am

First I read HF for entertainment, because that's why fiction is written. But then I also want to learn something.

My history lessons at school have been very basic, and we totally skipped the middle ages - from Roman times (not even the Fall of Rome) we went directly to French Revolution... And living in Germany we only got little tidbits on British, American and Australian history, only what was included in our Englishbooks or what our teachers told us about.

So novels are my way to learn. I read something in a novel, and if I get interested enough I try to find out a bit more about it afterwards.

I think that novels should be written in a way that's entertaining to catch the readers and to make them want to know more, but authors should try to avoid mistakes and anachronisms as much as possible so that those who read purely for entertaining reasons don't get wrong impressions on a time.

It might be true that hardly anyone learns something out of history, but if only some learn something it's better than otherwise!

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DianeL
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Post by DianeL » Fri May 13th, 2011, 10:21 pm

In most of my entertainments, I am usually the ideal audience. I'm willing to suspend disbelief and participate in almost any absurdity if it's fun or I'm intrigued. Historical fiction, though, I seem to hold to a different standard; the works I love the most are the ones which TRY at least (and explain, as well; good grief, how I love Author's Notes!) to convey the reality of a period, etc.

I have a hell of a hard time with Romance in Lacy Long Dresses, and with Feminists Out of Time; both these genres (yeah, I'm callin' 'em genres) bother me - the latter not least because, AS a feminist, I see no favors done by eliminating the reality of what women historically have had to deal with.

I also have little patience for arbitrary liberties taken in "historical fiction" (though I am extremely open to the ideas and treatments in alternative-history realities etc.), and the insistence of some histfic to insert Famous Characters in stories where they really aren't necessary never comes across as anything but self-conscious to me. I understand it, but if the tale is supposed to revolve around a peasant family and someone ends up in a heart-to-heart with Queen Victoria, or being admired and crucially mentored for the span of a single scene by Benjamin Franklin, I am going to roll my eyes shortly before clawing them clean out of my head. Name dropping doesn't become more attractive just because it doesn't involve an egregious contemporary celebrity. Please also deliver me from people who need to write the scene where Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth secretly, really, totally, like hash it out and some junk - all the while circling each other with their precocious egos. Bleah.

This said, I don't mind liberties, in and of themselves. Often, the right idea is incredibly fascinating. Posit something for me, write it well, and I will go with you down your beautifully written, fully realized primrose path. And it doesn't even have to be a small posit - visualize something preposterous, and if you do it well, I'll go with you.

But waste my time on vilifying Anne Boleyn for the sake of a soap opera, or wasting the high-concept of a female pope, only to produce a Mary Sue in a poor plotline, and I am done. And my marginalia with wither every page, too. I write in my books, and none too shyly. I edit without compunction, including commentary on writing choices. (B*tchy behavior, to be sure, but boy does it help when reading a weak novel I'm curious enough to see through, but gritting my teeth to tolerate.) And save your ax-grinding for the diatribe on the blog; my entertainment dollars are not a platform I'll be happy to see most authors standing on.

I spent the time researching and writing my own first novel exquisitely aware of the exceptions people could theoretically take to the choices I made - and I made a point of addressing those in the Author's Note. I've known too many guitarists, standing in the back of a bar some other band is headlining, and grousing about not being on stage themselves, to (a) forget they're out there reading novels and complaining about those too, OR (b) to let them really affect my performance. The Ax and the Vase is all mine; I made my choices advisedly, and am extremely happy with where they led me. I know not everyone who reads it will agree - there'll be a few who crow about the year I chose for Clovis' baptism, or even the bit about Tarpan horses. And my subject is obscure, too - at least relatively speaking, and at least on this side of the Pond.

So I know the pitfalls from both sides. At the end of the day, I want entertainment. But, for reading or watching your period piece, my standards do sit a bit higher than might be apparent from the fact that I own a DVD of "Highlander: Endgame" ...

Heh.
Last edited by DianeL on Fri May 13th, 2011, 10:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Steve Anderson
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Post by Steve Anderson » Sat May 14th, 2011, 6:02 pm

First off, it's entertainment. To be taken away. For me, it's a form of travel.

But historical fiction can have a purpose analogous to science fiction, which takes the possibilities made real by hard science and asks "what if?" By the same token, I think historical fiction takes what we know as (more or less) fact -- i.e. events happened -- and applies some of that same imagining that goes into science fiction. In this way, both genres can help us get at truths in our current world by bringing insight that comes through distance. Good fiction always gets at some kind of core truth, even if it's not known to the reader at first. Hopefully the reader is enjoying oneself above all.

Another reason why alternate history is probably so compelling, though I've never read much of it. For me, known history itself is more than compelling enough.

I hope this made sense and apologies if someone else covered it. It just came to me and I'm gonna let it stand!
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DianeL
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Post by DianeL » Sat May 14th, 2011, 7:30 pm

That puts it well (and more succintly than I did, certainly!) - the point of historical fiction is to leave our immediate world. I've always preferred entertainment that takes me somewhere unfamiliar. Still, a part of that is because I like to learn about worlds I do not know.

That informs my interest in science fiction too, of course - but part of the reason HF is more important to me is the aspect of reality it offers, the authenticity SF doesn't have - or usually can't be touched, anyway. I've always liked the idea that the characters we read about are in some way "real" people ...
"To be the queen, she agreed to be the widow!"

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The pre-modern world was willing to attribute charisma to women well before it was willing to attribute sustained rationality to them.
---Medieval Kingship, Henry A. Myers

***

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sat May 14th, 2011, 11:20 pm

I do think there's a similarity to science fiction, and it's interesting to note that a number of historical novelists also write SciFi, and vice-versa. There are a number of novels that blend the two by including time-travel scenarios that are elaborate enough to qualify the novels as SciFi. Just offhand, the superb 1992 novel The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one. It's set in the near future, and has parallel plots involving plague epidemics both there and in 14th century England.

As a broad generalization (always unfair, I know), I find that historical fiction is more likely to feature interesting, psychologically complex characters, whereas in a lot of the SciFi I have read, the characters are pretty flat, created more in service to an idea than out of an interest in people's personalities and motivations. That's the main thing that makes me prefer historical fiction over SciFi. But there are exceptions in both areas.
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Steve Anderson
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Post by Steve Anderson » Wed May 18th, 2011, 3:53 am

[quote=""DianeL""]That puts it well (and more succintly than I did, certainly!) - the point of historical fiction is to leave our immediate world. I've always preferred entertainment that takes me somewhere unfamiliar. Still, a part of that is because I like to learn about worlds I do not know.

That informs my interest in science fiction too, of course - but part of the reason HF is more important to me is the aspect of reality it offers, the authenticity SF doesn't have - or usually can't be touched, anyway. I've always liked the idea that the characters we read about are in some way "real" people ...[/quote]

[quote=""Margaret""]I do think there's a similarity to science fiction, and it's interesting to note that a number of historical novelists also write SciFi, and vice-versa. There are a number of novels that blend the two by including time-travel scenarios that are elaborate enough to qualify the novels as SciFi. Just offhand, the superb 1992 novel The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is one. It's set in the near future, and has parallel plots involving plague epidemics both there and in 14th century England.

As a broad generalization (always unfair, I know), I find that historical fiction is more likely to feature interesting, psychologically complex characters, whereas in a lot of the SciFi I have read, the characters are pretty flat, created more in service to an idea than out of an interest in people's personalities and motivations. That's the main thing that makes me prefer historical fiction over SciFi. But there are exceptions in both areas.[/quote]

Thanks, DianeL, and great points from both of you about HF carrying more reality and complex characters intertwined with events we know happened -- events that demand possibly more compelling motivations.

Margaret, your mention of SciFi and HF blending reminded me a great book I read years ago: Time and Again by Jack Finney. An illustrator (with a keen eye for observing) from the 1970s travels back in time to 1882 New York City. I don't read SciFi, but it really helped the past come alive in this case.
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wendy
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Post by wendy » Wed May 18th, 2011, 12:25 pm

Some neat and thoughtful answers. Thanks guys!
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The Czar
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Post by The Czar » Mon May 23rd, 2011, 3:15 pm

There are a number of "purposes" to historical fiction, imho.

1. It shows that there is really nothing new under the sun. Every problem a man, or a nation, faces, has been faced before. While Elliot is right, that most people don't, you can look at history to see what has worked and what hasn't.

For example... The average American has little to no idea of Afghan history. The Soviet invasion. The British invasion in the 19th C. Etc. and so on. Now I'm not disciplined enough to sit and read a straight history of Afghanistan... but I've read the Kite Runner, and Flashman!, so I know a little bit.

2. Good historical fiction places you in a time and place in a way that simple facts can't. It shows how different cultures work and think, and yet shows the universality of the human experience.

I came to historical fiction after a lifetime of reading fantasy. I've come to realize that no fantasy world is as rich, violent, vibrant, or tragic than our real world. I like to be entertained, but I like learning something while I do it, which is why I have pretty much switched completely to HF.
Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.
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