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question for writers

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Kveto from Prague
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question for writers

Post by Kveto from Prague » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 7:19 pm

this is just to satisfy my curiosity. i know we have a lot of writers who visit here (published and un-). heres my question:

It is about when you write a book focused on an actual historic person. Is it easier to write HF on an athentic well-documented historical figure? Or is it easier to write about a figure in which few details are known or confirmed?

I can see an advantage to each. with the well documented character there are obviously more sources to rely upon. More to help you with research. maybe even samples of what they have said, written, etc.

however, a less documented historical person probably offers the writer much more creative freedom. writers can fill in the details as they see fit. fewer constraints really.

So just out of curiosity, do you writers prefer either type of personage, well-documented or vague personages?

thanks for any responses.

M.M. Bennetts

Post by M.M. Bennetts » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 7:41 pm

Writing about a well-known figure may give you a ready audience. Which your publisher might well go for. Whereas if nobody's heard of your chap, (or chapess) you might well elicit a certain, "so what?"

I ended up writing about the assassination of Prime Minister Perceval in 1812 not because he was either well-known or not well-known, but because so little was known about the event. Full stop. Height of the Napoleonic wars, and there goes the PM. A shocking event for any country, you would have thought. And how would the UK have fared if at the height of WW2, Churchill had been assassinated? And yet, despite all that, almost nothing was known about it.

And because I was writing about that, it led me to write about other better known figures of the era. So it wasn't a matter of choice, really. It just happened that way.

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Divia
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Post by Divia » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 7:57 pm

I've never written about a famous person.

I always make up my characters. I find it more interesting and fun.
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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 6:03 am

I suspect different writers would answer this question differently. Writers who really like to do lots and lots of research and pin down as much as they can with a high level of confidence probably prefer to write about very well documented historical figures. Writers who like to be tantalized with just a bit of intriguing information and use it as a jumping-off point for their imaginations probably prefer to write about historical figures that are not well documented. I just reviewed a novel by Harry Sidebottom (King of Kings, the 2nd in his Warrior of Rome series - see review) which is about a Roman soldier in a poorly documented time period. I'll be posting an interview with him on October 12, in which I ask what led him to base a character on this particular historical figure.
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Post by Carla » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 12:10 pm

Hi Keny - Good question! I can only comment from my point of view. I wouldn't say that one is easier than the other. As you say, there are arguments both ways. With a well documented figure there's more scope for the 'truth is stranger than fiction' moment, e.g. Edward I paying a pirate to capture Eleanor de Montfort, or the scandalous rumours about Elizabeth I (aged 14) and Thomas Seymour. With someone who is not very well documented, or in a period of their life that isn't well documented (e.g. Anne Boleyn before she came to Henry's attention) there's a lot of room for imagination, although it isn't infinite. Even if a particular historical figure isn't particularly well recorded, there's still scope for plenty of research on the culture and society they lived in if the fictional inventions are going to be consistent with the historical period.

If someone is already a very popular subject of historical fiction, I would probably be less inclined to write about them because so much has already been said. This can be independent of whether anything much is actually known about the figure in question - as you say in your other thread, very little is actually known about King Arthur (starting with whether he even existed), and yet the Arthurian legends are the subject of umpteen novels, films, etc. It's not an area that attracts me because I don't feel I have anything new to add.

I picked Eadwine of Deira/Northumbria (seventh-century Britain and probably the first king of most of what's now England, for everyone who's never heard of him) not because of whether he was well known or well documented, but because I'm interested in the period. His story (what we know of it) took him all over Britain and from the very top of society to the very bottom, so it gives me an opportunity to explore the various cultures and religions and the interactions between them that eventually produced England, Scotland and Wales. That said, there is just enough information in Bede to hang a story on, and if Bede hadn't written it down it couldn't have caught my eye (by definition). So I do need something to start with, I think.
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Margaret
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Post by Margaret » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 10:15 pm

With a well documented figure there's more scope for the 'truth is stranger than fiction' moment, e.g. Edward I paying a pirate to capture Eleanor de Montfort, or the scandalous rumours about Elizabeth I (aged 14) and Thomas Seymour.
Good point, Carla. With some actual historical events, someone could get away with writing about them only because they are true - if an author made these things up, people would wall-bang the book because they would find it impossible to believe!
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parthianbow
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Post by parthianbow » Mon October 4th, 2010, 8:40 am

[quote=""keny from prague""]
Or is it easier to write about a figure in which few details are known or confirmed?
With the well documented character there are obviously more sources to rely upon. More to help you with research. maybe even samples of what they have said, written, etc.
However, a less documented historical person probably offers the writer much more creative freedom. writers can fill in the details as they see fit. fewer constraints really.[/quote]

Good question, Keny! For my main characters, I prefer the latter, because I have far more freedom. For my peripheral characters, I like the former, because I can attract readers, and use the rich detail to enliven the book.
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Kveto from Prague
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Post by Kveto from Prague » Mon October 4th, 2010, 8:39 pm

thanks for the answers, everybody :-)

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Post by fljustice » Tue October 5th, 2010, 4:34 pm

I like writing about historical figures in less well documented times. I believe in the "educational" element in HF and doing the research on interesting historical figures and about lesser known times is a labor of love. As to writing, the historical record provides an outline, but I have a lot of leeway in developing the kind of characters that would actually do the things they did. Motives, relationships, dialog, emotional throughline are all up to me.

The downside, as several people pointed out in your thread on Arthur and Robin Hood, is that publishers and readers seem reluctant to branch out into less well known characters and time periods. When my agent was shopping around my manuscript, all the big publishers were interested in was Tudors, Tudors and more Tudors! I tried to make the point that the Theodosian women of the 4th and 5th C were just as interesting and were fresh, but no go. :(
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