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Why historians should write 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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Post by EvangelineH » Sat November 9th, 2013, 5:33 am

I've suffered through the novels of writers whose non-fiction works were a joy to read. I'd rather an historian set aside their--dare I say...ego?--about their knowledge and credentials and think about the types of stories that move them.

But it's funny--is historian the only profession where one is expected to write historical fiction if one decides to write a novel? I know plenty of lawyers, army veterans, doctors and the like who write novels entirely outside their area of expertise.
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Post by annis » Thu November 14th, 2013, 4:40 am

I'm still puzzled by the current assumption that absolutely anybody (historian or otherwise) should be able to write fiction, as evidenced, I suppose, by the mediocre tosh being turned out these days in ever-increasing amounts. Do we believe that anybody could become a doctor or an electrical engineer if they don't have the necessary aptitude, just because they want to? Surely writing is the same. Anyone can work on the technical aspects of the writing craft as much as they like, and find personal satisfaction in it, but not everyone can possess the aptitude or that indefinable x-factor a really good novelist needs - dare I say, talent - a word that seems to have become too elitist to mention.

I know a lot of HFO forum users are also authors and it's certainly not my intention to target anyone here - I just think this is an interesting phenomenon in general.
Last edited by annis on Thu November 14th, 2013, 5:32 am, edited 10 times in total.

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MLE (Emily Cotton)
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Interest in HF: started in childhood with the classics, which, IMHO are HF even if they were contemporary when written.
Favourite HF book: Prince of Foxes, by Samuel Shellabarger
Preferred HF: Currently prefer 1600 and earlier, but I'll read anything that keeps me turning the page.
Location: California Bay Area

Post by MLE (Emily Cotton) » Thu November 14th, 2013, 9:22 pm

Talent is nice. I used to think that would get me far. But the real truth is, it takes 10,000 hours.

Malcom Gladwell pointed out that it takes that much time put it to reach true excellence at anything -- making shoes, programming in C++, flying a military jet, sailing for the world cup, designing houses, writing non-fiction, and (very different from the aforementioned) storytelling.

The greatest problem with our system is that it lacks a meaningful period of apprenticeship. That's where the storyteller gets to interact with the consumer and learn how to improve his or her art. It seems that most writers sweat alone at their word processors, getting biased and over-complimentary feedback from sympathetic writer friends and family, and batter themselves against the agent/publisher powers that be in the hopes that, sans reader feedback, they can reach some vaguely defined standard of 'ready to publish'.

I haven't any experience with the agent/publisher route, so I can't say whether that would have suited me. Every time I'm almost ready to hazard a proposal, the publishing world changes again. Fortunately, I have oral storytelling to 'scratch the itch', so I can get my fix, and return to the grindstone in search of excellence.

I'm almost to the Gladwell mark.
Last edited by MLE (Emily Cotton) on Thu November 14th, 2013, 9:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by fljustice » Fri November 15th, 2013, 5:02 pm

I understand your question, annis, but feel the problem lies in the definition of "talent" and what that looks like in a really good novelist. As our discussions here show, we all have our likes and dislikes. One author's style appeals to some, but not others. University MFA and literary awards committees try to put forward "standards" for literary fiction that leave many readers scratching their heads. (If a book is tagged literary, I run the other direction unless it is recommended to me by people who know what I like and I trust their opinions.) There are many best-selling authors whose work is formulaic, but that's what appeals to their audience. Other authors are masters of metaphor and always have the perfect bon-mot, but can't tell a decent story to save their lives.

My own preferences are for good story-telling, meaning I prefer plot-driven fiction with complicated, interesting characters. Writing style is much less important to me, but the style/structure can be so poorly executed, it overwhelms the story. For example, J. K. Rowling is wonderful story teller. I love her world, her characters, and the twisty plots. However, I think her style and sometimes her structure gets in her way. She could use a good editor. Without a doubt, I would say Rowling has talent. Is she a really good novelist? That's what each of her readers has to decide and many will disagree with my analysis.
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