Friday, October 02, 2009

Anatomy of an Outline, Part IX

A Taxonomy of Historical Fiction

I am more relaxed than some writers about genre labels. While they can be reductive, they also serve a purpose. I'd argue, though, that genre is a continuum rather than a box, and this is where some of the problems lie (particularly for a writer, like me, whose fiction has characteristics of both fantasy and history). The two are more closely allied than marketers (or indeed readers) like to acknowledge. Identifying the different admixtures of history and fantasy is therefore very helpful when putting together an outline. Using the example from earlier posts of The Inheritance Powders, my outline for a story of witchcraft and poison in the court of Louis XIV, we can see the different routes these choices give us.

1. Conventional history

What actually happened

This approach attempts to recreate for the reader the experience of living in a given historical period. The emphasis is on getting the historical details right to immerse the reader in the fictional world. This kind of fiction is often anchored by using real historical characters: Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour, Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels, Allan Massie's Imperial Rome stories. Recently Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has joined the gang (to unfortunate effect for a couple of my writer friends).

This kind of fiction can equally well employ fabricated characters (as in the historical section of Alis Hawkins' Testament) but the focus remains on telling a story within a historically plausible background.

There are many gradations within the field and some writers have more regard for historical authenticity than others, but writers working in this tradition will generally fail to convince if they 'get the history wrong'. The best writers will know what they can get away with (after all, they are writing fiction, not history): Patrick O'Brian's 'Aubrey-Maturin' novels are meticulously researched but the timelines are deliberately blurred. The books span the period 1800-15 but cram in far more than could actually have happened: to quote Wikipedia the period June-November 1813 is stretched out to accommodate events (including marriages, the birth and growing up of children, legal battles, terms in French and British prisons, two long voyages to the Pacific, the second eventually becoming a circumnavigation of the globe, terms of blockade duty, periods on shore, shipwreck etc etc) that ought to occupy five or six years.

I doubt that many readers mind.

Using this model, The Inheritance Powders would be an attempt to recreate what happened in the Affair of the Poisons with reference to the historical record. Success or failure would largely depend on the extent to which I manage to recreate the milieu.

2. Alternate history

What didn't happen but might have done

Alternate history has a long and honourable tradition and its own awards (the Sidewise Awards). They start from the agreed historical record but build in a departure point before the start of the novel. The world thus created is at once familiar and different to the one we know. The departure point is often centred around Nazi success in World War II. Robert Harris' best novel, Fatherland, adopts this premise, as does Len Deighton's SS-GB (to which Harris owes a great deal). These books are marketed as mainstream fiction, perhaps because of their authors, but alternate history is more likely to be lumped in with the science-fiction/fantasy crowd: Keith Roberts' excellent Pavane (in which Elizabeth I's assassination prevents the Reformation); Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle (another 'Hitler wins' story but not Dick's best work); or Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, which reverses the result of the American Civil War.

The best examples of alternate history not only play with the reader's expectations and knowledge of actual history, but invariably background the pivotal event and let the story unfold through character. Alternate history is difficult to write effectively (it has more pitfalls than other species of historical fiction including a very high smartass quotient) but its best it can present the reader with an extraordinarily vivid experience.

If we were writing The Inheritance Powders in this tradition, we might imagine "what would happen if the plot succeeded?" - say Madame de Montespan managed to poison Louis XIV? Would the Huguenots, repressed under Louis, become a powerful force in the country? Would the War of the Spanish Succession take place?

3. Historical Fantasy

What didn't happen and never could have

Historical fantasy uses the real world as its starting point but then deploys, to greater or lesser extent, the trappings of fantasy on top. The Arthurian period is popular for such tales (even with 'conventional' historical novelists like Bernard Cornwell), as is the 19th century. In the latter period, Tim Powers' The Anubis Gates, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Naomi Novik's Temeraire series and M.F.W. Curran's Secret War novels are all notable examples. Historical fantasy is likely to appeal to readers with a disdain for fantasy when it's not filed on the fantasy shelves (as with Cornwell) because the reader has to invest less intellectual energy in immersing themselves in the fictional world.

Historical fantasy often utilises elements of the supernatural or horror fiction, as in Dan Simmons' Terror.

Given the role of alleged witchcraft in the Affair of the Poisons, we could easily imagine writing a version of The Inheritance Powders in which the witchcraft was real rather than imagined. This would lend a very different cast to the sordid women concocting poisons in their kitchens for bored aristocrats wanting rid of their husbands. Instead they would be actual sorceresses casting their spells behind the scenes to change the course of the kingdom.

4. Historically-flavoured fantasy

History buried under the surface

Many writers of fantasy use their fascination with real-world history in creating their stories. Joe Abercrombie clearly draws heavily on Renaissance Italy in his latest novel, Best Served Cold, while George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire cycle acknowledges the influence of the Wars of the Roses. My own fantasy novels also draw more from the Renaissance than traditional fantasy models.

Writing stories of this nature gives the writer greater latitude (not, primarily, over getting the details 'right' although that's element of it) in playing with the reader's expectations. If you're writing a novel with Richard III as the protagonist, you can be pretty sure the reader knows he's going to end up dead (sorry if that comes as a spoiler to anyone...); but if you're creating your own world and characters, you can play a higher-stakes game with the reader. (Martin, in particular, uses this to immense advantage because of his willingness to kill off major characters). Both the writer and the reader need to invest more in engaging with the world, but the reward is a wider range of potential narrative outcomes.

In this context, The Inheritance Powders would take the flavours of Louis XIV's court which interested me - the Sun King mythology, the literally poisonous intrigues - and stitch them into a different narrative framework in which the outcome would always remain in doubt (and indeed in which the King could be presented as in real jeopardy).

All of which is to say, I suppose, that I'm no nearer knowing where I'm going with this. And also - and this is something of a surprise to me - that I'm finding it hard to leave fantasy behind than I'd thought.


David Isaak said...

What a marvelous zoology. I'd never really thought hard about how to slice those distinctions before.

I think you'd do well in any of them, and if you want to keep one foot in the fantasy world, that'd be more than just fine with most of your readers (including myself).

Alis said...

'I'm finding it harder to leave fantasy behind than I thought' - You know I'm coming to the conclusion that all of us have a 'best' mode. It doesn't mean we can't write in any other but that this will be where we do our most engaging work, which our brain/creative faculty almost uses as a default. And if it's where our creativity resides, then we diverge from this at our peril. So I suppose I'm not surprised that fantasy won't let you go without a struggle.

By the way, one of the most effective alternate history novels I ever read was Kingsley Amis's The Alteration based in a modern world where the Reformation had never happened. The central character is a would-be castrato and the novel is about the religious and artistic politics of the age. Really overlooked, I think, whenever Amis's work is discussed.

Tim Stretton said...

David, I'd never really thought about it before either, but I needed to reflect on it to understand where I was going. I still don't, but at least I see what the problem is now.

Alis, I think you're right. Historical fiction offers many opportunities but it has also has constraints, some of which I'm already finding chafing.

Kingsley Amis always retained a strong partiality for speculative fiction. I'm no great fan of vampires but he wrote a marvellous vampire short story--about which I can remember everything except the title...