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your knowledge of characters, help or hindrance

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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Telynor
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Post by Telynor » Mon January 19th, 2009, 6:34 am

Sometimes it helps, but more often than not, it's a hinderance for me. I've gotten so sick of novels about the Tudors or the last two generations of Romanovs -- I would rather read the nonfiction about them than most of the fiction out there. Which is sad, but I get so frustrated at the innaccuracies that I can't let go and simply enjoy the book.

On the other hand, if it's a novel about a time and place that I might not know too much about, it can be enjoyable. And if it's written well, then it doesn't matter if it's fiction or not.

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Leyland
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Post by Leyland » Mon January 19th, 2009, 4:46 pm

[quote=""boswellbaxter""]If the author hasn't done adequate research or takes liberties with the known facts without coming clean about it, my knowledge of the character does detract from my enjoyment of the novel (to the extent of Mr. Book meeting Mr. Wall). Otherwise, it doesn't--in fact, I'm very likely to buy a novel about a character that I'm already interested in and knowledgeable about.[/quote]
I'm with Susan on this one. I could happily read twenty different novels about a favorite person of the past as long as the authors get the main details regarding family and personality very close to the actual. The actual as best derived from primary and secondary sources, that is - and that any liberties taken don't wreck my suspension of disbelief.

I'm so impressed by an author who not only brings the real character's external world to life, but also the internal world of his/her thoughts through well written conversation and dialogue. I want to believe that the person I'm so fascinated with from the past is 'talking' to me and that I think 'yes, that's exactly how I thought he or she would be'.
We are the music makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams ~ Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Ode

annis
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Post by annis » Sun January 25th, 2009, 12:47 am

Just thought I'd add a link to Margaret's HNI blog, where she reports on the recent Key West Literary Seminar, devoted this year to "Historical Fiction and the Search for Truth." The question was where historical novelists ought to draw the line between fact and fiction.
it's interesting to see how different authors approach the subject:
http://www.historicalnovels.info/histor ... -blog.html

Ash
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Post by Ash » Sun January 25th, 2009, 4:31 am

[quote=""Telynor""]Sometimes it helps, but more often than not, it's a hinderance for me. ...I get so frustrated at the innaccuracies that I can't let go and simply enjoy the book.

On the other hand, if it's a novel about a time and place that I might not know too much about, it can be enjoyable. And if it's written well, then it doesn't matter if it's fiction or not.[/quote]

I totally agree. Tho it does depend on the author: despite how tired I am of the Tudors, if Penman or EC write another book about them, I'd still read it, because I know the story will be excellent and well researched. And as mentioned above, sometimes its helpful to have some background in the subject when reading a book. The many books I've read about the Plantagenets would not have been as worthwhile had I not read Thomas Costains four volume history of the same.
Last edited by Ash on Sun January 25th, 2009, 4:34 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Julianne Douglas
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Post by Julianne Douglas » Sun January 25th, 2009, 5:41 am

It's always interesting for me to see how different author's "recreation" of historical personages can differ. Give two authors the same set of facts and they will breathe life into the character in completely different ways.

That being said, I have a hard time finishing books if the characters are too different from the image I have in my own head based on my historical research and familiarity with the era. For example, I've tried to read several novels about the Valois court where the author's vision of the characters was so completely "off," in my opinion, that I just couldn't take it any more. I just kept screeching in my head, "No, no, no! He/she wasn't really like that!" Obviously, when reading about a period I know little about, I'm not fighting against my own prejudices, so I'm able to judge the story more on the skill of the storytelling than the accuracy of the historical detail.
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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sun January 25th, 2009, 6:01 am

Very interesting question!

On the accuracy issue, I come down somewhere in the middle in regard to authors taking liberties with the facts. It seems to me there's a difference between an author who simply hasn't done the research very well and introduces a lot of obvious anachronisms, and an author who has done the research and knows the history backwards and forwards but for purposes of the story takes liberties with a few of the details. The latter is more acceptable to me, especially if there's an author's note that says what details were changed. Some authors, for example, will shift the date of a less-famous battle a few days one way or the other to make it possible for a fictional main character to be present.

I was very interested in Russell Banks's talk at the Key West Literary Seminar. In addition to the example I gave in my blog post (of the road not yet built), he mentioned two other historical inaccuracies he knowingly used in Cloudsplitter. He added 11 years to the life-span of John Brown's son, whom he used as narrator, so he could bring the story right up to the beginning of the 20th century - he felt that added an important thematic effect by showing a contrast between 19th century and 20th century attitudes. He also had John Brown present at a lecture that someone (Emerson, I think) gave on the evils of slavery, when there was no evidence that Brown attended the lecture. This would not deter me from reading Cloudsplitter, because it's clear that in the main he followed the historical record quite closely and worked hard to understand the characters' personalities and motivations, and to present the general tenor of the times in an authentic way. But the historian who was on the panel with him clearly disagreed with this approach!

I do think I would enjoy a biographical novel less if I was already very familiar with the central character. This might be why I don't read a lot of novels about Queen Elizabeth; I shy away from them because I'm expecting them to be repetitive. On the other hand, I really enjoyed Margaret Irwin's Young Bess recently. It seems there's always a bit of unexplored psychological territory for an author to delve into, or an aspect of a person's life that has not been explored in fiction (in this case Elizabeth's relationship with her brother Edward). An author can stick very close to documented historical fact, and yet come up with quite different interpretations of what motivated people and how they felt about the events in their lives, and that's really what makes a novel interesting.
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Ash
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Post by Ash » Sun January 25th, 2009, 2:53 pm

[quote=""Julianne Douglas""], I have a hard time finishing books if the characters are too different from the image I have in my own head based on my historical research and familiarity with the era. For example, I've tried to read several novels about the Valois court where the author's vision of the characters was so completely "off," in my opinion, that I just couldn't take it any more. I just kept screeching in my head, "No, no, no! He/she wasn't really like that!" .[/quote]

Thats exactly why I dislike Phillipa Gregory. Right or wrong, the images of these royals in my head are so strong that her take on them just baffles me, irritates me, and so I don't read further.

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Ludmilla
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Post by Ludmilla » Sun January 25th, 2009, 4:41 pm

I tend to fall in the middle, too, with views similar to Margaret's on this issue.

I don't think there is any historical figure that I feel I have authoritative knowledge about, though. It takes years and years of dedicated research to become such an expert on some of these figures and characterization will always be speculative and greatly influenced by our own time. I do often question reviewer opinions on accuracy and interpretation of history. I've found too many of them to be enthusiasts who've read a handful of historical novels about a character and suddenly think they know more than scholars who've dedicated their lives to studying that one subject and have been immersed in the source materials. That's not to say that a fresh opinion on a figure shouldn't be considered, though. It can and often does make a good story if handled properly and plausibly -- espeically when those characters virtually walk off the page because they are so vividly brought to life.

I do have knee jerk reactions to certain characterizations, though. They may be very much in line with prevailing opinion and historical documentation for that particular figure, but somehow don't jive with what has developed in my head. I often think the images we develop in our minds have a lot to do with our own personal mythology and the reading we did in our formative years and how those characters were taught to us.
Last edited by Ludmilla on Sun January 25th, 2009, 4:47 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sun January 25th, 2009, 5:17 pm

Very good insight, Ludmilla, about readers developing a personal mythology. To some extent, probably all readers feel annoyed if that mythology is violated. Think of the novels based on fictional worlds, like Star Trek or vampire novels. If someone wrote a novel showing a Vulcan casually expressing emotion, or showed a vampire casually strolling about after daylight, readers would wall-bang it!

On the other hand, I rather like having my personal mythologies about history violated, if the author does a persuasive job and the story (so far as I can tell) is consistent with documented historical records. It's too easy, I think, to get complacent about our views of the past and perpetuate misconceptions. That's why I liked Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl, even though I tend to agree that Anne probably didn't commit incest with her brother. I enjoyed the novel's portrayal of the Boleyn family's ambition and the way they pressured their daughters to become sexually involved with the king. Even if it didn't happen exactly that way in historical fact (and we'll never know), there was an authenticity to the portrayal of human ambition and the unhealthy forms it often takes which I found more persuasive than other portrayals of Anne which suggest she was a complete innocent who fell in love with a powerful man and then virtuously did her best to remain chaste.
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EC2
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Post by EC2 » Sun January 25th, 2009, 5:20 pm

As a reader it doesn't bother to me to read about the same person more than once, or to know their history, but I will expect that take to have been well researched and the people to be treated with integrity. I guess ever since I started using the psychic research and have been able to have so much of it verified by professionals, I am even more a stickler for what certain historical people were really like. I know them so well that when an author has them going in the opposite direction, I will stop reading.
I hate it when writers alter the facts to suit their story - like adding eleven years to someone's life in your example, Margaret, or moving a battle just so's it's convenient. Could you imagine the furore if someone changed the date of 9/11 in a modern novel just because it didn't happen to fit into their story line? History is owed the same respect IMO.
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For never will cowards fall down there.'

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