Toward a Definition of Historical Fiction

If you follow me on social media, or read this blog, or have been within half a mile of me recently, I probably mentioned to you that I have a book coming out in October that I wrote with Genevieve Turner: Star Dust. It’s primarily set in 1962 during a fictional version of the space race. But is it a historical romance?

In the category definitions for the annual RITA Awards, the Romance Writers of America (RWA) limits the designation of historical romance to those set before 1950. Wikipedia offers the following paragraph in a discussion of definitions in historical fiction:

Definitions vary as to what constitutes an historical novel. On the one hand The Historical Novel Society defines the genre as works “written at least fifty years after the events described”,[2] whilst on the other hand critic Sarah Johnson delineates such novels as “set before the middle of the last [20th] century […] in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.”[3] Then again Lynda Adamson, in her preface to the bibliographic reference work World Historical Fiction, states that while a “generally accepted definition” for the historical novel is a novel “about a time period at least 25 years before it was written”, she also suggests that some people read novels written in the past, like those of Jane Austen (1775–1817), as if they were historical novels.[4]

While writers’ organizations and scholars disagree, then, the rule seems to be that historical fiction is removed significantly from the present (perhaps 25 to 50 years at minimum) and from the writer’s personal experience. So “historical” requires temporal and experiential distance. But how much distance is necessary? And what does that distance get you?

I’ve been wondering about this while watching and rewatching Mad Men (1960 – 1970), The Americans (early to mid-1980s), Narcos (late 1970s through, presumably, the early 1990s), and Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (1920s with some earlier flashbacks). RWA and The Historical Novel Society would call only Miss Fisher’s historical; the rest would be contemporary.

Except the approach in all of these shows doesn’t feel contemporary to me. The temporal remove is so important that these stories could not be told without material alteration if they were set in another place or time. So I would argue that a historical novel is one in which the settings calls attention to itself through emphasis on the differences between our contemporary world and the world of the narrative’s fashion, social mores, technology, legal or economic structure, etc. In a historical novel, the temporal remove itself is one of the subjects.

Now I’ll grant that some distance is necessary for this to be true. Have you ever had the experience of looking at a picture and realizing how “of the moment” you look in it, even when (at the time the photo was taken) you couldn’t see how the cut of those pants or the pattern on that shirt or the style of those glasses reflected trends? Give it a few years and poof, you can see style in a way that was invisible.

I’m suggesting that a writer could successfully meet my standard in a novel set in the 1990s or even the early 2000s and even when s/he is writing out of lived experience. To wit, I’m excited about this collection and Rainbow Rowell’s popular YA romance Eleanor & Park was broadly considered historical despite (or perhaps because of) its 1980s setting.

In the last analysis, historical writing seems to be defined by its thick setting and orientation toward that setting more than by its use of dates and research.

Now I’m not arguing that RWA should adopt this definition. It would clearly be unworkable for something like the RITA. But when I label Star Dust historical, that’s what I mean.

What do you think? How would you define historical fiction?

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Authenticity in Romance; or, The Land of 10,000 Dukes

What follows is a random collection of jet-lag fueled thoughts meaning it’s even more random than normal. You’ve been warned.

Yesterday, Kaetrin wrote an essay on Dear Author about the problem of accumulation. She explores how the overrepresentation of certain kinds of people in romance shapes the genre by pushing writers toward certain tropes. There are by a factor of a thousand to one more dukes in romance than there were/are in real life, but if you’re writing, discoverability is a real issue–so do you choose to write the millionth duke romance or do you write a romance set in a Shaker community in antebellum America? Probably the duke.

(Aside: I desperately want to read a Shaker romance. Why are we so obsessed with the Amish? I mean, other than the fact that Shakers were celibate. And this leads to me asking for an asexual romance. Has anyone read either?)

It’s not an apolitical question. In the land of 10,000 dukes, lots of people are unrepresented or unrepresentable–and that matters in terms of who is being written out of history and for whose story seems to have subjectivity in the present. As Kate Sherwood pointed out in the comments, there’s a magnifying effect because readers and writers learn through their reading. They learn the tropes, thus making certain ideas de rigueur, but I think they also probably learn the worlds too.

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Margaret Mitchell’s Long Shadow

I didn’t mean to write an American Civil War romance. Indeed, I didn’t mean to write a historical romance at all. My first book was a contemporary and so was my third. If I had sat down and decided to write something historical, surely I would have chosen another period, a more commercially-viable one, than I did. A nice Regency involving a brooding duke perhaps. (And for the record, I love a good Regency with a brooding duke as much as the next girl. In fact, probably more than the next girl.)

But writing Brave in Heart (which will be out in 2.5 weeks, if I hadn’t mentioned it lately) just sort of happened. I wanted to write a novella to experiment with different plotting, but the subject unfurled without consulting me. The first 20,000 words appeared very quickly — honestly, I could really use that sort of inspiration with the two creative writing projects sitting on my harddrive now, not to mention my still-unfinished dissertation — though the second half was more of a march. It was only when I had finished that I realize what I had done, which was to enter a very specific subgenre and one that has an almost inescapable Ur-text.

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Land Where Our Fathers Died

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The day was hot; summer announcing itself. There’s a smell in the south — warm earth and wilting verdure — that I forget every fall and rediscover in the late spring: the smell of summer. The breeze stirring my hair didn’t cool me, though it moved the wheat in which I stood. From the top of the hill, looking down over the field, I tried to imagine the scene 150 years earlier when the Battle of Chancellorsville raged.

I stood at the spot where Robert Lee’s Confederate troops flanked Joseph Hooker’s Federal forces. Among the Federal troops at Chancellorsville was the Connecticut Fifth, the unit to which the hero in my forthcoming novel, Brave in Heart, belongs. Without spoiling the book, the battle is significant to the story I’m telling. I’ve looked at engravings. Read survivors’ accounts. But I needed to see it for myself.

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Anniversary of the Battle of Chancellorsville

One hundred and fifty years ago today in northern Virginia, the Battle of Chancellorsville began. It would take a week and claim 24,000 lives. That’s a number that requires a moment to sink in. Maybe it helps to write it out: twenty-four thousand men perished there in fighting over seven days.

Aside from the massive human cost, Chancellorsville is interesting to me because it was the beginning of the apex of the Confederacy militarily. Between Chancellorsville and Gettysburg it seemed quite likely that the Confederacy would win the war.

After years of study as a curious amateur, then as scholar, and now as a writer, I still can’t understand why things were so close for two + years and particularly for those two months. How could the Union — with more than twice as many people (the ratio gets even more unbalanced when you take into account Confederate unwillingness to arm the sizable enslaved population), almost all of the industrial production, and vastly superior infrastructure and wealth — not crush the Confederacy immediately?

The answers to that question (e.g., weak military leadership, hubris, bad luck, differences in culture, etc.) proved so costly it makes me ill. The American Civil War should have ended quickly, but it did not and thus 660,000 people died and cultural rifts were entrenched that still haven’t fully healed (see Confederates in the Attic).

But back to Chancellorsville! It was a decisive Confederate victory, though the death of Stonewall Jackson clouds this assessment, and it set up the dynamic for the war’s true turning point, Gettysburg. Because of his win at Chancellorsville — a win that occurred entirely because of tactics as he had been badly unnumbered — Robert E. Lee felt emboldened to invade the Union and that turned out to be a mistake, though the war wouldn’t end for two more years.

Chancellorsville has a long and prestigious literary history as the subject of Stephen Crane’s novella The Red Badge of Courage, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “A Night at Chancellorsville,” a poem by Herman Melville entitled “Stonewall  Jackson,” and a diary entry by Walt Whitman from the very underrated Specimen Days in America.

On July 1, I’ll be waltzing quite brazenly into the party with my novel Brave in Heart, a historical romance that finds it’s turning point on the Chancellorsville battlefield. I hope you’ll join me there.

To Book or Not to Book, Harriet Beecher Stowe Edition

Full disclosure: I’m a graduate student writing a dissertation on 19th-century periodicals. I’m going to get up on my soap box now. I know that my objection is tiny and esoteric and navel-gazey in the extreme, but I think this matters. Let me tell you why.

A few months ago, I was watching — and loving — The Abolitionists on PBS’ American Experience. And in general, I think it’s wonderfully well done examination of the people who fought slavery in antebellum America.

Except that in a nearly 10-minute long segment on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Abolitionists made what to my mind is a fairly serious error: they omitted the novel’s serialized history. The narrator gives the publication date as 1852, ignoring the first version of the novel: a 41-week installment in The National Era that ran between June 1851 and April 1852. This morning, PBS’ Makers (which was also awesome) repeated that error in their Twitter feed.

Now, the Era only reached about 50,000 people, which isn’t small potatoes for a periodical in that year but is nothing compared to the millions who would read Uncle Tom’s Cabin in book-form. But there’s no way Stowe’s novel would have been as successful, or as successful as quickly, if it hadn’t already made a big splash as a serial.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s a twentieth-century error to privilege the book as a physical object over other forms of texuality, which is what I think is happening when Uncle Tom’s Cabin is given the 1852 publication date. Until the late nineteenth century when the price of paper fell leading to the rise of cheaper books, books weren’t necessarily the primary way people read. Newspapers, magazines, journals, pamphlets: all of these were more important. So what I’m saying is that we can’t, or we shouldn’t, look back at the past using our own biases. We should look at publishing in the 1850s in all its glorious nuance, and that includes embracing the serialized novel in a periodical.

Given all the upheavals in publishing today, including the rise of the e-reader, the book may be in the process of being displaced. Non-book serials are certainly making a come-back, see the success of erotic romance writer Beth Kery for example.

At the end of the day, is it really a huge error to give the publication date of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as 1852 and to ignore the serialization? Probably not. What really matters is Stowe’s words — her gut-wrenching, patronizing, moving, troubling, complicated words — but we shouldn’t bring our own biases about what forms matter and how people read to a nearly 162-year-old work.

Thus endeth my rant.

How Historical?

I read a lot of historical romance. Much more than I read contemporary.

In part, I think this is a hold-over from my childhood, when I rarely read anything written (or set) after 1920. In part, it’s the fantasy: the dances, the beautiful clothes, and the exoticism of the past. In part, I found a group of really wonderful writers who I like to read and that’s what they write. But I struggle as a reader, and now as a writer, with trying to understand whether historical novels are merely set in the past or whether they take something else — narrative structure, style, tone, etc. — from their setting.

Nineteenth-century novels differ from twentieth-century ones in many ways, including their use of description, dialogue, and exposition. If you’re writing a novel that you want to feel as if it could have been written in 1820, the plotting is likely to be slow, it’s going to be long, and there will be a lot less dialogue and a lot more description, all by contemporary standards, of course. I’m also not sure that anyone will like it.

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Mood Music, Part 1

After a few weeks away from it, I’m back to the historical novella. I don’t like the first three chapters, but then I think it finds itself. I’m not sure what to do about that problem. Cut those chapters and work the vital material in elsewhere? Switch POVs? It’s fairly obvious that I need to find a critique group if this is going to be a project I continue to pursue.

In the meantime, here’s my mood music.

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