Do you write Historical Fiction? Writing historically accurate fiction starts with RESEARCH.
Well, duh! I know that.
What most writers forget is that they take for granted a great many aspects which can lend more credence to their works, as well as a better experience of the story they want to put forward to readers. Additionally, if you want to be considered historically accurate, you must behave as a historian–do you due diligence. Can it always be done? Some things might slip past you. No human is perfect. Try your best. This series is going to help by presenting articles of interest from around the internet and get you started on the research necessary to complete an amazing manuscript.
Movies are not historical. I could leave this article here, but I am sure, as a writer looking to up your game, you want to know why that is.
Well, just like historical romance is not history, historical film is not history. Much of this genre interpolates the possibilities of truth surrounding the subject time frame. Romance novels, for the most part, are written without spending much time at all figuring out anything of historical merit. The point of the work is to use historical items to enhance an erotic story. That is all. Just like in film, the point is to use history to entertain the audience.
Even documentary film can be incorrect in the findings they present. When using either a cinematic entertainment or a documentary film, the researcher must do their homework. Neither of these can be primary resources. That said, once in a while a documentary or film comes along where someone has done their work and the film can supply a great tertiary resource.
They can help you think about how you might handle the plot of your story and supply inspiration. For instance, if the film is about a city in India, and the author has never been there, then they might use a documentary or film to estimate what the environment is like—sights, sounds and feel. Trust me, if you’re worth your salt, you’ll want to consider this. There is a way to be completely immersive without bogging the reader down. However, some of the greatest works out there have taken their time to tell the reader about a world they know little about.
They can also be windows on the culture of the time in which they’re made. Giving you clues as to how things were laid out, people interacted, what might have been normal for then. Fashion is always questionable in them, as the greatest designers sought to have their work featured on big movie screens, so many were not dressed in the every day. Again, you have to know what you’re looking at and not just take the movie as a verbatim snippet of time.
A lot of writers worry that making all these inclusions in their work will negatively affect the narrative they produce. Showing, not telling, is a good basic rule that many writers take way too far, however. Let’s get back to India for an example. You could show the reason for the state of the section of India that you’re going to use as a back drop, something that has probably evolved over centuries and is better left to a History of India book than the opening chapter or prologue of your historical fiction. Yet, this is highly important to the thrust of the action. What do you do? Why you tell of course. You take a few lines, paragraph or even a couple pages to tell the reader about this, and then you return to your show don’t tell narrative that gets on with your story. Otherwise, what can you do? Spend a prologue giving disjointed vignettes on examples? Dear lord, that would be so confusing and lengthy. You’re going to annoy your reader!
The truth is, writing advice is based on something that worked for a particular story and author at a particular time. Many of the greats broke the accepted rules of writing and that is why they were great and literature has evolved over the years. Copycat writing leads to boring cookie-cutter works that will fall away into the dust of history. They’re unimportant. I might be writing myself out of readership on this series by stating this, but acceptable historical research isn’t the same as creative writing rules. Besides, the writer will do as the writer will do. I still hold this series as guidelines.
If you’re going forward with using a documentary or film to do some research for your work, please refer to the following works regarding the use of such material:
- Appleby, Joyce, Lynn Hunt, and Jacob Margaret. Telling the Truth about History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994.
- Literature and Film: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Film Adaptation. Ed. Robert Stam and Allessandra Raengo. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
- May, Lary. The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
- Pereboom, Maarten. History and Film: Moving Pictures and the Study of the Past. New York: Pearson Publishing, 2010.
- Rosenstone, Robert. History on Film/Film on History (History: Concepts, Theories and Practice. 2nd ed. New York: Pearson Publishing, 2012.
- Scholz, Anne-Marie. From Fidelity to History: Film Adaptation as Cultural Events in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2013.
Remember: Film and literature are meant to move minds, not just entertain. Take care with the power you’re wielding. It matters what you do with history and you cannot predict how your work will be used in the future.
Have a topic you’d like discussed on writing historical fiction? Leave me a message and I will do my best to get to it
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