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Writing Historical Fiction (1)

David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet,  a historical novel set in Japan at the turn into the 19th century is getting good reviews. See reviews here and here. GoodReads has an interview in which he talks about the craft of writing historical fiction

With historical fiction, the spectrum is right through to wrong, it’s historically correct to historically incorrect. If it’s too much in the incorrect direction, then it’s not going to work. The onboard proofreader in your reader’s mind will say, “Hang on! They didn’t have electric lights at this point! This is a book, this is fiction, it isn’t real!” And—puff!—the whole thing disappears in a cloud of smoke, and the reader quite rightly throws the book across the room, end of story.

To get it right, you need to research and research and research. And then you need to hide all your research, otherwise something else happens. You get sentences like, “Milord, would you like me to light the sperm whale oil lantern or would you prefer the cheaper but smokier pig tallow candle?” You burst into laughter and—puff!—the illusion is gone. So you have to get it right, then you have to hide it.

Historical fiction isn’t easy; it’s not just another genre. How are they going to speak? If you get that too right, it sounds like a pastiche comedy—people are saying “thou” and “prithee” and “gadzooks,” which they did say, but to an early 21st-century audience, it’s laughable, even though it’s accurate. So you have to design a kind of “bygone-ese”—it’s modern enough for readers not to stumble over it, but it’s not so modern that the reader kind of thinks this could be out of House or Friends or something made for TV—puff! Again, the illusion is gone. It’s very easy to be wrong; it’s very easy for the book to fail. [David Mitchell]

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