Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is historical fiction intimidating?

Part of the mix of classes I teach in the Writing Department at the University of Central Arkansas is one called Forms of Fiction. It sounds like a literature class, but it isn't. It's a writing workshop, albeit one that requires more reading than your typical workshop--and one in which I make the students draft stories in specific fictional forms, whether they want to or not. "Learning by doing," as I tell them. For each of the forms we cover, we spend a whole class beginning stories in our journals. Four of these journal entries the students later type up, polish, and turn in as one of their formal assignments. I taught two sections of Forms during the spring semester, and for the first time I included historical fiction in the mix of forms we covered. You might be wondering what took me so long to include it, especially if you know that I've been teaching the course since 2005. I can hear you thinking: "You're the historical fiction, guy. It's the subject of your blog. Why avoid it in your Forms class?" Why, indeed. Exactly what I said to myself while planning last spring's classes.

Interesting outcome. As with the other forms, we read and discussed example stories, and we talked about the challenges and excitements of the form. But then I gave them something else to do. I asked them to select a specific century or period in a specific country's history. Then I gave them a list of very practical questions to answer about that period. A few were broad questions, such as "What type of government was in place at the time?" But most were purposefully more specific and more quotidian, e.g., name a popular hair style, describe a popular hat, list three food items that would typically have been eaten for dinner during this period. I told them this wasn't supposed to be a major research project. They should just go on the internet and track down answers that they could express in a few sentences. The point of this quicky research was not to just arm them with some political and sociological facts about the period, but to generate pictures in their heads. Because from pictures come stories. And because I knew there was no way they could have ideas for stories set during the American Revolution, let's say, or the Ming Dynasty, or World War II Germany, without some grounding in the period first. The sheet of questions was homework. In class, we started stories in our journals, my hope being that once they decided on a protagonist and course of action some of the information they came up with through their research would be of creative use to them.

The results? They all, more or less, carried out the required fact-finding. And they all, more or less, dutifully started stories in their journals on our journal writing day. (Although there did seem to be more huffing and groaning and sighing than usual.) But when it came time to turn in their next formal assignment, almost none of them chose to do historical fiction. Out of two Forms sections--30 students in all--only two students finished their historical stories. This was quite disappointing. I had hoped they would find themselves newly engrossed in some fascinating historical period and driven to compose a story set in that period. What happened? You might think their disinclination stemmed from a lack of interest in history generally. But that isn't true. A number of students, whether due to work in other classes or simple personal interest, were very curious about the time periods they researched, which ranged from ancient Egypt to medieval Japan to 20th century Guatemala to footballer culture in 60s England. And on journal writing day, when I went around the room asking them what they had started, many of the stories sounded marvelous to me. When I expressed my disappointment that so few of them had gone on to finish their historical fiction pieces, the only response I got was that the form seemed "too hard." A bit more illumination came in their end of the semester statements in which a few of them admitted to being intimidated by the challenge of researching history and then accurately reflecting that history in an imagined story. It seemed like more than they cared to take on in the middle of a busy semester.

Okay, fair enough. I'm glad that's cleared up. (Perhaps the fear of hearing comments like these is why I dragged my feet on including historical fiction in this course.) But the results do make me wonder, How many people who might want to write historical fiction are simply scared off by it? A colleague of mine at UCA has a terrific idea for a historical novel set in early 20th century Italy. But he says he's not sure he has the wherewithal to see his way through the research and then the writing that would come out of that research. (Actually, I'm sure he does have the wherewithal.) At the risk of sounding naive, I find the idea of historical fiction being intimidating mildly surprising. For me, the challenge of bringing alive history in all its sights, sounds, smells, and attitudes is the fun of historical fiction. And, really, once one has found one's story, and is locked into it, the whole process isn't much different from writing any story. You just want to make it as engaging and concrete as you can. (Okay, so might find yourself doing a bit more fact checking everyday. But that's part of the fun.) I worry now that my students thought I was expecting them to become historical experts, and their stories to be flawlessly researched tomes exemplifying the periods in question. No. Not at all. If that's what they thought, I must do a better job of explaining myself in the fall. Because what any historical story is finally about is never the period of history but the person at the center of the story. And exploring people is exactly what should warm the hearts of storytellers all the world over. Even 19 year old ones.


  1. It would seem to me that historical fiction requires a level of dedication and organization that can appear overwhelming. I'm having heart palpitations at the mere thought and I'm not even writing anything. :)

    Perhaps it's a matter of having the process broken down beforehand. Sometimes it's not knowing where or how to begin (and lacking helpful road signs along the way) that keeps people from ever starting.

  2. I understand completely, Shannon. And thanks for the comment. While it's easier said than done, I think the only antidote to anxiety such as you describe is to throw yourself into a story. The telling of the story should be no different for a historical piece than a nonhistorical one; it's still the same old wonderful/hard business of developing interesting characters and giving them conflicts/impasses/situations that engage the reader. Looked at it this way, finally starting the story can be immensely liberating. As with most forms of writer's block, the anxiety is all jammed up at the front end. Once you start working on the actual fiction, the log jam starts to loosen. Of course, this doesn't address the basic question of how much research does one fairly need to carry out before one feels ready to jump in. I've listened to different people on this issue, and written about it on this blog. Finally, it's a personal decision. But I'd never want anyone to use research as an excuse not to start writing. Everything gets better when you start writing. Harder but better. When you begin writing your characters can begin to speak to you. Until you do, they are only flat people on research note cards (or notepads or a computer file, etc). As far as exactly where to begin, just put someone someplace specific and show him doing some specific action. Then it's just one sentence after another. You'll be surprised at how quickly you find yourself "into" the scene.