Reading historical fiction–or writing it, for that matter–is like settling into a house for the first time. You discover its quirks, the odd angles where surfaces meet, the cranky washing machine, the scuff marks, as well as the pleasing architectural lines, the perfect spot for your favorite chair, or the view from the upstairs window. The house feels lived in, not a backdrop for your life.
In historical fiction, this quality is hard to define precisely, even harder to achieve. Yet I know it when I see it, and I think most readers do too, though we may disagree about which stories have it, and which don’t. Maybe too, we disagree about why. From having read writers’ and readers’ blogs on this subject, I sense that the discussion usually focuses on historical accuracy, and I’m not sure that’s what I’m looking for.
Yes, I want the author to have done her homework, and I resent it if a writer dares enter my historical specialty, my territory, without a passport and gets the facts wrong. What nerve! But when I stop jumping up and down, I see that what really bothers me is how the house she’s built feels like scenery rather than a home. The characters don’t really live there, no matter how many period details surround them like antiques.
An example crossed my path this week, a novel about World War I whose first 150 or so pages narrated the events of July 1914, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo to the declarations of war. The author wrote as if Europe expected a great war from the get-go (when in fact, nobody did), and she collapsed or reordered key events, either because she hadn’t consulted a reliable source or thought she could up the tension this way.
Whatever the reason, little compelled me to keep turning the pages. But I did anyway, because I wanted to understand what I was missing. Now, I think I know.
To make four main characters prescient about the coming conflict is historically doubtful, but this is fiction, after all. Had they wrestled with competing feelings about duty, what killing would be like, serving their country, pleasing or disappointing their families, whether they were cowards–the possibilities are endless–the book might have succeeded. But these issues, if they appeared at all, were told or explained, not lived through, so the house of this novel felt like a flat backdrop. The characters may have possessed the right kind of bedstead and the proper tea kettle, but they seemed dislocated, as if they were merely passing through and would go somewhere else in a minute.
So I’ll offer this: The historical record matters, but you can get around that if the characters connect to the time. Conversely, the history may be top-notch, but unless the people move through it as if they belong, there’s no tension, no fullness, and no story.
What do you think?