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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

non-advice about historical novels

I have a meter that counts visitors to my blog. I'm quite happy with it, and it's free. (I chose to use Statcounter.) Among the things it tells me (not the identities of individual visitors--never fear!) is search terms people use to get the list of results that include my blog (and on which they clicked). A fair proportion of those are people who search with queries such as "what is a historical novel" or "how to structure a historical novel". It makes me a bit sad to think that those people will not really find what they're looking for in this blog.

If I were to try answering such questions, what would I say? For a definition of historical novel, I might look in places such as the Historical Novel Society website, and in particular to their definition page. Not to keep you in suspense, their short, one-line definition runs thus:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

(Their definition page has links to other, more in-depth discussions of the genre.) I'm sure their definition is as good as any; for these are people who clearly read lots of historical fiction and care about it.

Which, in some sense, is more than I can say. For I would not describe myself as a fan of historical fiction as a genre. That is, I don't go out of my way to read historical novels. I am not particularly attracted to any genre as such. I feel the same way about movies: it doesn't really matter to me whether I watch a romantic comedy or an action-adventure show. I care about only one thing: the quality of the story. If the story is good, I don't care where or when it's set, or whether it's drama, comedy, or something else. It's like the old joke: What kind of comedy do you like? The funny kind. What kind of story do I like? The good kind.

So why am I writing a historical novel? Because that's where the action that interests me happened: in history. The story is very important to me; anyway, I deduce that it must be, because it is putting me through an incredible amount of effort and mental discomfort. The story is important; it magnetized my attention; so I'm telling it.

Don't get me wrong: I do like a good historical novel. One reason, I think, is that the genre is quite wide-open thematically. The story can be about anything; it just has to be set in the past. This is unlike, say, murder mysteries, which I tend to find too formulaic. In this case, writers exert themselves to find exotic places and people to write about, but handcuff themselves (in my opinion) by writing to such a restrictive theme. But here again, an exceptionally well-done murder mystery gets my respect and my eager attention. Snow Falling on Cedars almost--almost--made it to this category for me.

As for how to structure a historical novel, I would say it is not different from any other kind of story. Most fiction-writers, in my opinion, are undereducated in storytelling, and should try to catch up with screenwriters in this regard. The best source available is Robert McKee's Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. You should learn these rules--and learn them well--before you think about breaking them.

So, you historical-novel hopefuls, I'm probably not your role model. I'm not a genre writer. I'm working on a vast, difficult, and very eccentric project.

In a word: don't try this at home.

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