I’m preparing to give a workshop on research for writers generally and writers of historical fiction in particular. (Sept. 17, sponsored by the Knoxville Writers Guild). I got to wondering what this genre is anyway, I mean what do experts say about it? So I went to the best sources I know, my agent, Courtney Miller-Callihan of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates and editor Amanda Bergeron of HarperCollins. They generously wrote their take and said I could use their words here. I can’t imagine better descriptions of this rich, devilishly hard to write, but deeply rewarding (to me anyway) literary genre.
An agent’s view; Regarding a working definition of historical fiction, in the broadest of terms, it is a story set in World War II (or earlier) that’s written for a contemporary (now 21st c) readership, by a contemporary (now 21st c) author. Eventually that timeframe will get dialed forward to incorporate Vietnam, of course, but I think the idea is that it should not be a time period that most of the readers will have directly experienced. Good historical fiction offers a window to the past and allows the reader to feel that he or she is learning something about another time and place, but it also needs to feel modern enough to be accessible in terms of the issues it addresses and the stories it’s interested in telling. (We’re more interested in the Salem Witch Trials than in the nuanced religious and philosophical arguments the Puritans had about church doctrine; Calvinism is important but would probably make a pretty boring novel.)
An editor’s view: I think the best historical fiction authors are those who have done a tremendous amount of research, and yet the reader doesn’t walk away thinking “Wow, the author did so much research.” To be able to write about a time or place it’s crucial to fully understand what you’re writing about so that the characters and scenes leap from the page. To that end, I look for projects that are atmospheric, feel authentic, and tell stories full of rich, lively, engaging characters. The best fiction touches on universal themes, and so I find that the most successful historical fiction projects bring the past to life through ideas and emotions that are just as real now. But to be able to write great fiction in a way that feels natural, it is necessary for the reader to feel confident in the writer and writing. The second something unbelievable or anachronistic occurs, it’s a distraction that takes credibility away from the story and author. For those reasons alone it’s so important that an author become a bit of an authority on their subject (or at least know exactly where they can find what they need). At the same time, it’s never fun to read something that feels bloated with research to the point that it gets in the way of a story. Bottom line: great storytellers use research as a foundation for their characters and story but nimbly avoid getting tangled up in it.