Monday, September 1, 2014

At long last--the historical fiction class

[This post is being dual-posted on my other blog, Payperazzi.   For weekly reflections on writing, teaching writing, publishing, and the writing life, check out Payperazzi.]

For years at UCA we've talked about it: running a workshop class solely devoted to historical fiction.  There seemed to be a pressing need.  After all, as I've written about repeatedly on my other blog Creating Van Gogh, historical fiction is enjoying an especially fruitful time right now: as popular as it's ever been in terms of mass market sales, while at the same time its writers routinely win or make the short lists for prestigious prizes like the Man Booker, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Award.  Most importantly, the students want to try the form out.  They want to focus on it.  They want to study it.  So really it's about time.  And, yes, now it's happening, and I'm honored to be the instructor allowed to teach it.  The crop of students in the class--a nice mix of graduate students and undergrads--are all genuinely interested in the form and eager to throw themselves into at least one, if not three different, past times in order to write a story or stories.  (I've given them the option of writing three separate fictions or one longer one.)  One of the undergrads is a history major.  Another is a business major/writing minor with an interest in the form that dates back several years, when I first had him in workshop.  Then he was writing about medieval Japan; now he's interested in Joan of Arc.  One of the graduate students is working on an historical novel for her MFA thesis; another wants to explore family stories from out of Kansas.  They're excited.  I'm excited.

Because the course was created under our Topics in Creative Writing rubric, for now it's a one-time shot.  Let's hope the class succeeds, which means the students like what they read and, more crucially, what they write.  And because it's a brand new course, it's an utter experiment, as any brand new course is--making it, from the teacher's standpoint, both thrilling and anxious at the same time.  I'm giving the students quite a mixed bag of work to do: required readings in historical fiction (including two longish novels), presentations on articles about historical fiction as a craft, the original fictions that they compose, in-class journal writings and reflections, peer group meetings, and, later in the semester, full class workshops.  It will be a full room of fifteen people and, as is usually the case with any workshop course, trying to figure how to balance all the different elements within the time alloted will be the biggest test.

I got the ball rolling last Wednesday with a short presentation on some of the issues surrounding the form.  First of all: What is historical fiction anyway?  Opinions definitely vary.  (Does historical fantasy count?  What about alternative histories?)  And: What are the "rules" of writing it? Here opinions vary even more widely.  I was hardly trying to lay down the rules myself but instead trying to suggest some of the areas of most sensitive and commited disagreement.  For instance, when employing an actual person out of history in your story, can you make things up that you know never happened?  When setting the story in a much earlier period is the writer required to describe in detail the physical setting of that period?  How closely should you--or even can you--try to mimick the way people spoke in the time period?  And what if the language they would have spoken is medieval French or Turkish or Russian, and you're writing in English for an English language audience?  How do you approximate one language through the other?  I do have my own measured opinions on these questions.  Opinions I'll certainly share with the students.  But I'm hoping and expecting that as the students write their own fictions and research what others have to say about the form, they'll uncover lots of different opinions about such questions as well as plenty of questions that I haven't yet brought before them.  It seems true, in the end, that what the governing rules are for historical fiction is something that each writer of historical fiction has to decide for himself or herself, just as the governing rules of any novel have to be determined by that novel itself.  So in the end what rules my students choose for themselves will likely be as varied as the projects they are working on.  But we're only at the beginning now; the ending is quite far off indeed.  I'm excited and anxious to see how this ride goes.

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Giveaway reminder:  Just another reminder that through Goodreads I'm running a giveaway promotion (on three continents!) for Island Fog, my forthcoming book of linked short stories.  The book is half historical fictions, one of which my class is reading for this coming Wednesday.   Let's hope they like it!  And if you haven't yet, let's hope you sign up for the giveaway.  Just follow this link.  The promotion ends on Oct. 1, which is the official release date for the book.


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