Background in Historical Fiction

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One of the hardest things in writing historical fiction is to describe the world fully enough for the modern reader to imagine it while at the same time not having the character exclaim over, or even notice, items that are common to them.

In our everyday lives, for example, we pass by buildings in our neighborhood without noticing them, to the point that when one of them is demolished, we say, “I remember something was there, but what was it?” In my current work in progress, Aloha Spirit, I need to describe Honolulu as it was in territorial Hawaii. My protagonist never had to even notice buildings along the route from her home to the downtown shopping district. As an author telling her story, though, I need to describe it to provide historical context.

Another place authors of historical fiction have to pull back is when characters are doing normal household tasks. These tasks need to be described so the reader understands what is going on, and the process must be historically accurate. In Aloha Spirit, my character does the laundry, a task we all know well. But what did it look like in 1925? What type of machine was used? What brand of soap? These details give the story a historical accuracy and flavor, but it’s important to remember that the character isn’t going to notice the washing machine any more than you notice your coffee pot. Joan Blos wrote an article in the School Library Journal. She included the passage “Mother stood in front of the white box and carefully adjusted the black dial” to illustrate the awkwardness of this type of description. A modern writer surely wouldn’t describe cooking as Blos did in the above passage, so why should a historical fiction writer do so?

Personally, I prefer a little more detail about the setting in historical fiction because it helps me envision the era. I can honestly say I have never felt a historical fiction piece to be over-described. I appreciate the research that goes into novels of this typed, and I get tired of blow-by-blow accounts of battles and political intrigue, but the details of the furnishings, clothing and food, for example, captivate me.

 

 

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