This marks my sixth story that could be called either historical or “cultural” speculative fiction; the latter term simply referring to a story set in a real culture outside the modern U.S., but with a speculative element. So far, my historical/cultural fiction has taken place in ancient Polynesia, the Aztec (Mexica) empire, the American civil war, modern day Russia (Tomsk), a modern day Brazilian Favela, 9th century Germany, and 1914 Northern Rhodesia (modern day Zambia).
Clearly I’m a history nerd. I love writing historical and cultural speculative fiction, as much for the research as for the writing. So what’s my advice to others seeking to write this stuff?
I know that sounds harsh, but hear me out. There are three reasons I would advise other writers to stay away from historical/cultural fiction:
- LOTS of research. Now personally, I love this aspect. Because I’m down with history, and learning about other cultures, the idea of scouring an entire tome on daily life in the 16th century Mexica empire not only doesn’t scare me, it sounds brilliant. But I suspect normal people would not find this remotely enjoyable. Now do you actually *need* to read through a giant book? Can’t you do research on the web? In my opinion no. See below where I discuss my theories about how to do this right, if you’re going to be insane enough to try it.
- LOTS more work to write. Even once you’re done doing research, the writing part is difficult. Let’s say you’re crafting a story set in 1900’s Africa. To do this thing right, every bit of dialog, every observation has to be filtered through the attitudes of the time. You can’t just say “I’m heading to the store to buy some milk”. You have to understand the cadences of the speech, you have to understand whether milk was really sold in stores at the time, you have to know whether they even drank milk then, and what the stores looked like (if they existed). So essentially this is related to the research problem mentioned above, but this one threads through every part of writing. That is, even after you’ve done the high level research, every sentence you lay down on the screen has to be micro-researched to make sure it is authentic to the time and place. Thus, writing this type of fiction is VERY slow.
- Sensitivity issues. I am not going to get political on these blogs, but the closest I’ll come is to say that in today’s environment, you have to be very careful with any tale set in a culture not your own. Now to a large extent this is good. We *must* be sensitive to other cultures and never exoticize them, inferiorize (or superiorize) them, and of course avoiding stereotypes is the hallmark of any good writing. But if you’ve done your research right, and paid attention to ensure that every detail is authentic (essentially 1 and 2), this should fall naturally out of your writing. The problem is, it’s often not enough. One example: If I’m writing a story set in the American civil war as told through the eyes of a Confederate Sergeant, it is virtually impossible to be racially sensitive in the way that we would expect of any decent human being in the 21st century. This is the situation in my story “Pivot Point”, set in the battle of South Mountain in Maryland in 1862. Now, the overall story should be sensitive and on the right side of history, and my character does eventually come to understand that everything he is fighting for is wrong (sorry if there are any Southern sympathizers in my readers, but I couldn’t feel more strongly about anything). But until he comes to realize this, he cannot be racially sensitive, because it would be thoroughly unauthentic. The problem with this is that many will read your tale, find some objectionable viewpoints, and it will never make it past the first reader. The essential issue here is that to be authentic, you have to accurately convey the attitudes of the times, and those usually don’t liine up with our own. Thus, this kind of story is so much harder to sell than if you’d just written a ghost story set in a haunted house in New Orleans. Why go through this hassle?
OK, so historical/cultural fiction is way harder to research, way harder to write, and way harder to sell. That’s my summary. But you can sell it, and if you’re drawn to history like I am, you may want to try anyway. After all, don’t we write for the love of it? So if you insist on writing historical/cultural fiction, here are my three precepts:
- Read a book about the place/time before you lay down the first word of the story. You should have the outline of your story in your head before you start reading, but once you know the general shape of your tale, pick up that book (or Kindle). If you read a book cover-to-cover, you’re going to glean all kinds of insights into the ways of the times—what people ate, how they conversed, what they used for money, how they did very basic things, what they thought about their neighbors, and a million other details that you will not get from searching the web. Why won’t you get that on the web? Because using the web is typically done for targeted searches. You want to know X and Y, so you do a search on those things. But that targeted search is not going to reveal A, B, and C which you didn’t think you needed, but which would be REALLY cool if you included in your story. And when you include enough authentic details in your story, the type of details no one else would know, your tale will ooze authenticity. That is the goal of any historical writing.
- Don’t let a single sentence escape without subjecting it to evaluation to see whether it really fits the time and place. A single “modernism” in an otherwise great story will boot the reader out of the story, and could ruin everything.
- Use the web for targeted micro-research, the type you need to accomplish 2 above. The web is great when you know what it is you want to find out. This one is obvious, but the point is, don’t just put something down based on your *assumption* of how they would’ve said or done it. Make sure it’s accurate.
- This is a stretch, but if you can go to the place you’re writing about, do it. Nothing beats actually being on location, and breathing in the feel of the place. Even if you’re writing historical fiction and you don’t have a time machine, just going to the modern day equivalent can provide all kinds of stimulus. This one is obviously not always going to be possible, but if it is, great.
- Finally, if you’re writing about another culture, do anything you can to get feedback from a member of that culture. This is both for sensitivity and accuracy reasons.
OK that’s enough from me for now. See you next time!