About a month or so ago, I was hanging out with the other Unreliable Narrators, and we were interviewing Gail Carriger. Gail Carriger is the author of a great many books that take place in a peculiar place readers like to call her Parasol-verse, and at some point in the interview, Gail mentioned she liked her books to seem historical in the sense of Masterpiece Theater—not exactly authentic, but somewhat historical.
And I thought, yes, this is what I do. I try to create the mood of a historical novel. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do a lot of research. I have a book that is a canal-by-canal photo album of Venice, which talks about when each building went up. I read general histories, look at old maps, try to dig into what kind of police force was in Gibraltar in the 19th century. I do the research things.
I also realize I am a 21st-century American woman, and there are many things I will get wrong. I will make many stylized choices a reader might not appreciate as accurate. I simply can’t make one hundred percent historically accurate choices because I am a creature of my time, AND I am writing fiction. Woah is me, but my first hope is to be entertaining, and I cannot escape who I am, where I am, or what my culture tells me to think.
In this regard, I think, Gail Carriger has it right.
Now, lest I am wrong, and I think I am, given the crazy popularity of, say Downton Abby, you might not be familiar with IPT’s Masterpiece Theater, which showcases a great many historical dramas, largely British, based on great(ish) works of British literature, or scripts meant to emulate the great works of British literature. Masterpiece is not the only avenue for these shows, as my third copy of A&E’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice attests to, but it is a handy shorthand for a certain kind of costume drama that recreates, within certain cultural standards, literary drama. I am a fan, and I should point out why I prefer writing with a certain entertainment flair, rather than historical accuracy.
I write fantasy: Not only am I writing historical stories, but I am writing fantasy stories. Even in the realms of alternate history or secret history, there is some amount of fudging the facts, or making assumptions. With fantasy, I am directly inserting the impossible (Egyptian gods banished for their presumption; trolls that traveled to the U.S. with immigrants; post Napoleonic French sorcerers.) into existing history. Accuracy is impossible when parts of your world are made up, although you can try to make your impossible seem plausible within the constraints of history.
Historical recreation sometimes makes for stiff drama: Not always. History can be pretty amazing. But sometimes what actually happened isn’t the most dramatic, as Hollywood reminds us with all of its movies based on true events, sometimes loosely. Adding pizzazz, angst, and drama serve the purpose of a story or novel, to entertain and involve us, the readers and viewers, in the human struggle of a story.
The look is the thing: One need only take a look at Gene Kelly’s version of The Three Musketeers and compare it to the 1993 The Three Musketeers to see what I’m talking about. Yes, we interpret history once again through the lens of our time. Lady deWinter’s crazy 1948 hair with jaunty hat, versus Lady deWinter’s low key long hair, unornamented in 1993, show what’s stylish in each time frame, not in the time Alexandre Dumas is setting the story. Sometimes we are closer to accurate, and sometimes we are way off base, but we do try to get a look we like that evokes the time of our historical drama.
I have to take my modern audience into account: This last one? Well, would you really want to read a story where people acted with past biases and prejudices rather than focused on entertainment? Some of the tensions and predilections of the past make for interesting drama, like The Crown’s revelation that Edward, Elizabeth’s uncle who gave up the throne for Wallace Simpson, thought Hitler was kind of all right. But others make modern viewers cry foul. In Downton Abby, how would we have felt if Sibyl and Thomas didn’t get to make their “unsuitable” match? Modern viewers were rooting for them! So yes, we tinker as dramatists to good effect.
Right now I am about to embark upon the third Klaereon Scroll book, and it will involve two characters from other countries: India and Martinique. I will be doing research into those countries, but I will borrow what works and modify what doesn’t in the tradition of all good historical novelists. So the overall effect might not be scholarly, but if you would pick it up after seeing it on public television, and if the costumes are good, well, my work is done.
Cath Schaff-Stump writes speculative fiction for children and adults, everything from humor to horror. Her YA Gothic fantasy The Vessel of Ra is available from Curiosity Quills. Catherine lives and works in Iowa with her husband. During the day, she teaches English to non-native speakers at a local community college. Other recent fiction has been published by Paper Golem Press, Daydreams Dandelion Press, and in The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk. Catherine is a co-host on the writing and geek-life fan podcast Unreliable Narrators. You can find her online at Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, @cathschaffstump, cathschaffstump.com, and unreliablenarrators.net