Thursday, April 1, 2010

On writing biographical historical fiction...

When I was a kid, we had a set of Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedias. Somehow, I absconded with them and claimed them as my own, I suppose because nobody else in the house used them. They sat on my largest shelf, in my closet, and whenever I was bored or curious, I'd pull one of the volumes down and read about faraway places and events of long ago. Sometimes I'd lose myself for hours in those musty pages. The advantage to this odd hobby of reading reference material for entertainment later resulted in me becoming part of the high school quiz team and someone who was, for awhile, mildly obsessed with Trivial Pursuit because it was the one board game that could hold my attention.

More than anything, I became intrigued with historical figures: Richard I, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Cleopatra . . . When I discovered Jean Plaidy's historical fiction and her series on the Plantagenets, I was in heaven. Later, much later, I decided to write fiction revolving around prominent historical figures. I find it utterly fascinating to take known facts, read a variety of interpretations by non-fiction writers, and then develop my own understanding of what motivated them, what their fears, hopes and dreams were. You begin to realize that it's not always easy to comprehend why they did what they did - and a big part of that is because morals, gender roles, social rules and expectations and politics and religion were so vastly different in the past from what they are now.

Since putting some of my writing in public view, what I've further come to discover is that tackling biographical historical fiction is a tricky business. Some people love it. Some don't like it at all - maybe they find it boring, overdone, or they approach it with expectations that are so rigid, that it would be nearly impossible for any writer to deliver a proper rendition that would please them. I've occasionally heard that it's difficult to do biographical fiction well. But how is this any different than writing about a completely fictional character? Either the story is engaging to the reader - or it isn't.

Previous portrayals of a historical figure - be it in books or movies - can affect people's opinions of that person. And that can be a high wall for any writer to overcome. I'm constantly challenged by readers' perceptions of Robert the Bruce, as many people believe he betrayed William Wallace, which he did not. I honestly didn't realize when I began writing about real people how strong those preconceived opinions can be. Or how vocal some history buffs can be about them. No matter what light you paint a real person of the past in - or even a group of people or a particular event- it's bound to get someone's dander up.

I'm curious to know how some of my blog readers feel about this. Do you read biographical fiction or prefer not to? Does it depend on the writing? Do you go into it with an open mind? Have you ever put a book down because it contrasted too much with what you believed that person to be? Have you ever read a novel that totally changed your understanding of a real person?

Until later,
Gemi

10 comments:

Ashley Barnard said...

I love reading about historical figures in fiction when I know something about them. I love to see the information I already knew transformed into someone's story; I also enjoy learning new things about historical figures by reading about them in novels (which can be dangerous as I don't always know what is fact or fiction). Usually I will come across a figure that interests me; I learn a little bit and then devour every novel about them I can find. I feel like I have this one-sided connection to the writer when I see they have utilized the facts that I already knew. Weird, maybe, but true!

Anne Gilbert said...

In the hands of the right writer, biographical historical fiction can be very interesting. But it's important to choose your character wisely. There are sooooo many novels written about famous people in Tudor times, that one more novel about somebody like Elizabeth I or Henry VIII, or even Shakespeare, gets boring after a while. Writing about more obscure, but known characters, Tudor or otherwise, can be a very interesting read int he right hands. However, I don't read biographical historical fiction much any more(though I used to when I was younger); most of the writers writing about the well-trodden life paths of well-known historical figures tends to bore me to death, because you already know their life path, despite various interpretations of them. But I'm just one person. Lots of people are sure to disagree with me.

Kathryn said...

I love biographical fiction, as long as the author sticks as closely to the known historical facts as possible. So many novels about Edward II and Isabella, for example, repeat the same old inventions over and over and over, which one author in the 19th century thought of and other writers copied as though they were certain historical truth, until nowadays many readers think of this stuff as ‘fact’ because they’ve read it so often, when it’s not based on any primary source at all. I wouldn’t necessarily put down a biographical novel if it contrasted too much with the image I have of a person (because my image may be completely wrong), but I would, and have, if a novel takes too many liberties with the known facts or is far too biased in favour of one person.

Genevieve said...

I LOVE biographical fiction, though I'm not educated - or focused - enough to try it myself. What I try to do is write a completely fictional story, but have real personalities from that time appear. For example, I'm writing WW1 right now, and I know the ship and the captain, and even his mannerisms, so he's in there. That kind of thing.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

First, I apologize for the lag in comments appearing. I've had a few unintelligible spam comments lately and had to turn the 'moderate comments' feature on. Then I stupidly forgot to tell Blogger to notify me of pending ones. Duh!

Second, thanks so much for your responses. You've all given me an idea for another post.

Anne Gilbert said...

Considering that most people here seem to like biographical fiction where I've found I really don't(unless it's exceptionally well written), I can only repeat that I'm just one person. And I certainly wouldn't stop anybody from reading anything, historical or otherwise. And Gemi, I look forward to whatever you have to say about this, whether I agree or disagree with you.

Greta said...

It isn't about biographical, is it? If you interpret a historical event ina different vein to the 'recognised' understanding... ooh er. As you did with Isabeau (and Robert) and as I did with Jacobsz in my book. Bring it on, I say. You have had the courage to re-interpret the data, to see what the HISTORY says (as opposed to the victor).

You write class fiction. More power to you.

N. Gemini Sasson said...

@ Anne - Personally, I'm totally okay with that. We all have our likes and dislikes. I could never get much into vampire stories myself, but some people eat them up (now that was an awful pun, wasn't it?). I'm trying to understand *why* some people like biographical fiction and what others' objections may be to it.
@ Greta - Yes, truth is relative. And there is no reality, only perception. (Darn, just gave away my next post).

Undine said...

My favorite reading is history and biographies, so I enjoy biographical fiction when it's well done--but it so seldom is. They generally read like rejects from a supermarket tabloid. And I could forgive bad writing, but Bad History is beyond the pale. It drives me nuts when authors have a historical character doing things that , beyond a shadow of a doubt, never could have happened. I hate thinking that people are reading this stuff and assuming it's based on some kind of reality. It really makes me wish it was possible to sue someone for libelling the dead.

Anne Gilbert said...

Undine, I totally agree with your comments. That, BTW, is another reason why I don't read much biographical fiction these days. And yeah, some of these people try to make something sensational out of events that often have an ambiguous interpretation, or take the more biased historical accouts, or take, for heaven's sake legends about certain people as facts! And while I don't know a whole lot about some historical periods, I kinda sense when things don't "seem right"