Writing Historical Fiction by Simonetta Carr
I love straight biographies - pure facts, no imagined characters, no added quotes someone might have said. I love the safety of adverbs of probability: “maybe,” “perhaps,” “presumably.” I love exploring options, giving the benefit of doubt. From the start of my series of Christian Biographies for Young Readers (published by Reformation Heritage Books), accuracy and objectivity have been my main goals.
Then P&R asked me if I wanted to contribute to their Chosen Daughters series. It was a different genre. While keeping true to the historical facts of the main characters’ lives, these types of books are normally categorized as historical fiction.
I had to think about this for a while. It’s true that historical fiction may be more appealing to young people than straight biography, but the project seemed risky. How could I attribute to a character thoughts or words that may have never crossed her mind or lips?
I was supposed to send two sample chapters, so I hesitantly started to write. At first, what turned out was a biography with a few uncertain attempts to imagine and describe. It was stifled and cold. Then I looked at the overall plot. Olympia’s life was full and adventurous, but it needed some organization. I needed to find her character arc and discover the main yearning that carried her through.
I started to study her letters, finding small clues to hidden feelings. Soon I realized that the freedom I could exercise as a fiction writer allowed me to dig deeper into her soul, daring to interpret and connect in ways I would not have done before.
In a way, the serious biographer says, “To the best of my knowledge, after reading all the primary sources and comparing them with secondary sources, I believe that this is an accurate account of this person’s life, and I am telling you why.” He takes the reader to a vantage point, distant enough to see the whole picture.
On the other hand, the serious writer of historical fiction says, “To the best of my knowledge, after reading all the primary sources and comparing them with secondary sources, this is what impressed me about this character’s life and feelings. This is how I see them. I believe it’s a valid interpretation, and I am going to show you.” He brings the reader very close to the character, where sights, smells, and sounds can be experienced, and then even closer, to the less conspicuous motions of the heart.
The biographer helps the mind to expand, to consider several possibilities and re-evaluate previous opinions. The fiction writer helps both mind and heart to get deeply involved in another person’s life, experiencing with a certain degree of empathy rather than passing an intellectual judgment.
Writing historical fiction takes courage. While the biographer presents an array of possibilities and lets the reader decide, the fiction writer has to make decisions, based on his research. I couldn’t say, “Olympia may have met her husband at the ducal court.” After studying carefully her letters and the costumes of her time, I had to imagine an initial meeting, her reaction, and his proposal, full knowing that someone else may disagree with my choices.
Writing historical fiction takes courage also in an emotional way. There is a memorable quote by film maker Akira Kurosawa: “To be an artist means never to avert one's eyes.” My husband knows how often I stick my head under the blankets when we watch movies. I am not just talking about the occasional scenes of actual violence. I don’t want to see any type of pain and suffering. Sometimes I even shun the tension of the anticipation. In my view, there is already enough unavoidable suffering around us.
But when we write fiction we have to get close to every feeling, even those we want to reject. That includes not only pain, but even attitudes that we normally despise. The best writers can appropriate those attitudes and express them as if they were theirs.
Overall, writing historical fiction is definitely more difficult than writing a biography. It’s more emotionally involving and more time-consuming. I just finished writing a biography of Renée of France which will be published by Evangelical Press next year (D.V.). It took a lot of research and study, which included a search for an unpublished doctoral dissertation. I also chose to translate most documents myself. Still, all that doesn’t compare with the amount of work my book on Olympia required.
With Olympia, I also chose to translate her letters directly (to avoid copyright problems) and studied primary and secondary sources. I also travelled to Ferrara to visit the castle where she lived and met with a historical researcher to discuss the floor plans of sixteenth-century middle-class homes. A biographer may do all this, but I could not stop there. I had to go on a much deeper study of the minor characters than what I would have done in a biography. I also had to discover what people did in the various situations Olympia had to face. How did men propose? What did a renaissance banquet look like? What were the celebrations during the pope’s visit to Ferrara? What did people do in their free time?
I remember when, after studying the laborious details of the Schmalkaldic war, I had to research the different diseases that sixteenth-century writers grouped under the generic name of “pestilence” and find textbooks describing how they were normally treated. I almost said out loud, “Olympia, a pestilence too? What else had to be part of your life?”
The difference between a biography and a work of historical fiction is, in my view, very marked. I have read several attempts at creating a hybrid between the two – biographies with frequent fictionalized descriptions or dialogues – and the results were usually disappointing. Both genres have their place, and neither one is by definition more exciting or interesting than the other.
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In Olympia’s case, I recommend Holt Parker’s The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic (University of Chicago Press), which contains both an accurate account of Olympia’s life and a full collection of all her existing correspondence, speeches, and poems in English. Weight of a Flame, on the other hand, takes the same story and helps the reader to experience it, much like a film or a painting would do. Some readers might want to start with this one and then read Parker’s book for a deeper study.
On my blog (www.simonettacarr.com) I am planning to give a chapter-by chapter account of what is true and what is fictional in my book. I hope you will follow it and add your comments.
*Simonetta, Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on the difference between writing biography and historical fiction! It has been a pleasure to read and to get a glimpse into your world as an author! We really appreciate the great lengths to which you go in your research to ensure accuracy for your readers!!