“Tips and Rules to Use in Writing Historical Fiction”

These are the lecture notes I used at Missouri State in W. D. Blackmon’s class and at the Creamery Arts Center.

Have any of you written fiction set at a time before you had the ability to remember, set at a time before your first memory?

Are you comfortable with it being called historical fiction? I knew when I published my novel, Morkan’s Quarry, in April it would be called historical fiction. But what kind? E. L. Doctorow would point out to us that all fiction that aspires to be literature and is not science fiction is set in the past. The Great Gatsby, published in 1925 concerns events in the summer of 1922. So fiction is by nature a slow food entertainment.

If you have not attempted the writing of something set far in the past, I encourage you to take the challenge. Succeeding at it will improve your range as a writer and will certainly set your writing apart from the mass that lands in editors’ boxes every day.

Forces, changes are colliding in American literary fiction, colliding to make it very similar, very short, very shallow, and of reduced value and appeal to the average reader. First, two changes in literary magazines have lead to the predominance of shortened, shallow stories. The per-page cost inside the magazine has risen, and editors have often cut pages from magazines and journals in response. Second editors have sought redesigns, such as that undergone by the Missouri Review, and these redesigns, while graphically very attractive, have reduced the space in the journals and further encouraged short, shallow stories.

Second, in this era of the short and shallow story, we are expected to read all we need of somone’s struggle in seven to eight typed pages. But in that short space, writers find it hard to give characters jobs beyond academia, or worse the main character in many stories is a writer. The first good thing setting a story in the past will do is to force you to give your characters jobs outside of these narrow realms. Almost all of your potential readers have jobs outside the academy and we hope a majority of our readers have jobs outside of creative writing. They own businesses, and many still define themselves through the work that they do. Why is it that in so many short stories we read, the protagonists have no defined job or have a job that is referred to but thereafter impacts the course of the story no more than say extra sunlight?

I have found that if writing is to be rich and varied in range, one needs to graduate from the rule of “write what you know,” and do the research and if necessary the living research to write what you know well enough to create the seamless dream that is fiction.

It’s good to decide what kind of historical fiction you aim to write. I’m not sure that these are the perfect divisions of historical fiction, but I think these might be helpful.

1) The Classic Historical Novel
(Defined largely by Georg Lukács in The Historical Novel) A novel in which a character of middling importance caught between warring factions in a conflict serves as reader’s ambassador to a setting and time well in the past of the publication date. Large historical figures, kings, clan war lords, mighty knights, generals, the famous of history are minor characters, called upon stage only when they are making history. See Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley and Heart of Midlothian.

2) The Epic Historical Novel
A novel in which all main characters are outsized, Achilles-scale, major players of history, as Georg Lukács calls them “world historical figures.” Most often there is no reader’s ambassador here, no single protagonist to focus upon. Our narrator can range from the sweep of continents to the creases beside Robert E. Lee’s tired eyes. Historical accuracy is lifeblood, the course of the narrative follows history closely, and the purpose is to give some feeling and emotional flicker to the actions of the great makers of history while at the same time affirming legend held dear in a people’s collective memory. Especially for an American market that hungers for nonfiction learning and strongly prefers prose to poetry, these creations seem attempts at national epics. See Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels, and any of the franchise of Civil War novels by his son, and even historical novels about Gettysburg by Newt Gingrich.

3) The Military Historical Novel
A novel in which almost all characters, save for a few well-placed, lustily portrayed, fiesty women heaving in near must, are members of the armed forces. These do not, to my experience, make pretensions toward being national epics. Very often there is a reader’s ambassador, a protagonist, of either middling importance, neglected or forgotten significance, or one on a cornerstone arc. By cornerstone arc, I mean an arc of character in which “the stone the builders rejected becomes the cornerstone.” Great, heroic things come from unanticipated, unlikely quarters. In the Military Historical Novel, a character with a cornerstone arc, such as the rogue hero Richard Sharpe, is middling enough to see all of one side of a conflict and expose foibles of a military-social order while at the same time countering or affirming dearly held legend in collective memory, and even quibbling with the historical record. Military accoutrement, weaponry, and chariots of war often replace narrative in the worst of these novels. Accuracy is lifeblood. Character development can be well handled, if predictably, in the best of these. Or characters can all be extremely clichéd so that we can quickly dispose of the soldier and get busy with his uniform, knives, and guns. See any of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s series of adventures for the best of these. I have no suggestions for the worst of these. But they are there, if I may, in legion.

4) The Literary Historical Novel
A novel set in the past involving one or a tight group of middling characters who change throughout the course of a novel in an arc, and whose changes of heart are the primary focus of the novel rather than the history surrounding. E. L. Doctorow would insist we just call these novels. His novel Ragtime in many ways upends all these definitions, bringing his middlings in contact with Houdini and Houdini in contact with Archduke Franz Ferdinand and so on. In the Literary Historical Novel there can be a single ambassador to the reader, or a village narrator as in Anton Chekhov’s Ward 6, or The Peasants, The Kiss, or The Duel. Or the narrator can be first person, as in Joseph Roth’s great novel The Emporer’s Tomb. Historical accuracy, if it is even required, serves as a technique (like starting en media res or interspersing dialogue with necessary but-not-so-exciting descriptive matter). In the Literary Historical Novel, accuracy as a technique serves to preserve the seamless dream state of the novel. Those readers with large willingness to suspend disbelief don’t need minute equipage and unwavering obedience to facts. Readers are after emotional truth, not eventual or universal truth. For great Literary Historical Novels, or just fiction set in the past (which as Doctorow tells us, that’s ALL literary novels) see those mentioned above, and Joseph Roth’s masterpiece The Radetzky March, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, William Harrison’s Burton and Speke. Or for those wanting great literary “historical” fiction of the Ozarks see Donald Harington’s The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks, Butterfly Weed, and many of his others, Daniel Woodrell’s Woe to Live On, and Paulette Jiles’s Enemy Women.

5) The Historical Romance Novel
quoted from In Bed with the Duke by Christina Dodd

“Countess Martin drifted by and said, ‘Miss Chegwidden is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Her blood is purer than yours, Mrs. Mortensen, with a strong Danish influence.’ And she drifted away.

‘Humph!’ But Mrs. Mortensen said nothing more.

Countess Martin had repeated a much-treasured Chegwidden family tale. Emma didn’t ask how she knew.

She didn’t ask because nothing that happened in the daytime mattered very much. What mattered were the nights, when the Reaper appeared in her bedchamber. He did not come for information. With the prince gone, she had none to give him. He came for her.
He appeared suddenly in a gust of wind, and once, in the distance, thunder growled. She ran to him, flung herself in his arms, and they kissed, passionately, yearning, touching each other with ever increasing boldness. He caressed her ears, her shoulders, the base of her spine, and the peaks of her breasts. He pressed her against the wall, holding her there with his body, while they grew ever more frantic with need.

But every night, despite her invitation, he left her alone to dream deeply of him and a passion so bold her dull life was tranformed.”

All of these forms of historical fiction are worth the chair time, sitting at the computer, writing. Deciding what kind of fiction you are wanting to write will do much to shape what happens after that and will answer a lot of questions you have along the way.

Here are some other rules that have helped me. I know only how to help you write fiction that aspires to number 4, the literary historical novel. None of these are set in stone. They just helped me write.

1) The Rule of Dignity: W.D. Blackmon emphasized this concept again and again when we were beginning fiction writers in his classes. Give your protagonists and other major characters dignity and your fiction will be enriched. Writers can make the mistake that rural characters, impoverished characters, or characters living in the past were dumb, were country grotesques, thought and spoke in simple, uncomplicated ways. Just because someone is poor, or from Long Lane, Missouri, or lived one hundred years before me that does not mean the character is beneath me. In fact, try writing a character from those disparate circumstances and make the character a BETTER human being than you are.

2) Beware of your bias: You pack a set of beliefs, biases toward liberal, anarchist, libertarian, conservative, Catholic, or Hindu beliefs, lenses through which you view life. People in the past had very complicated belief systems as well; and on the whole, in vanity and folly, like us, our predecessors were often convinced that they too were absolutely right about Bogomilism, or the divine right of the Holy Roman Emperor, or Shaker Dancing, or Slavery. Some of their belief systems we now find reprehensible, Biblically, cosmically wrong. Beware. Making fools of your characters may not lead to thrilling literature. The driest, stiffest arguments in historical fiction occur when two characters hash out the wrong and right of an issue the contemporary reader feels was long ago decided. Try showing and have characters act on beliefs rather than explain them.

3) Consider what you are writing about: If you are writing only about history and events and facts, does what you are writing really need to be fiction? Maybe it is an epic historical novel, a military historical novel, or an historical romance. But if it is fiction that aspires one day to be considered literary, the focus is not the war, but the human heart facing the war.

4) Look for your entry point: Look for your ambassador. Look for the cornerstone. Look for the character caught in the middle. Let me demonstrate. In William Garrett Piston’s superb book, Wilson’s Creek: The Second Battle of the Civil War and the Men Who Fought It, the author describes back of the lines something we never think about in our movie-laden, hero driven, chivalry and glory saturated take on the Civil War. Behind Confederate lines at Oak Hills was a vast stockade of herd animals. To feed an army of 11,000 you need meat every day. Well, who watched them? That cowherd may be your ambassador, for even if he cowered in the trees with his animals, he or she witnessed the Battle of Wilson’s Creek for a vantage that may prove meaningless for the historian, but revelatory for the fiction writer. That cowherd may be your ambassador the world of August 10, 1861. Choosing your protagonist and your ambassador will make all the difference.

5) Look for the story that is already written: W.D. had you look at something from Morkan’s Quarry and published in the Ontario Review. I am sure this will be true of any district of the planet you choose to write about: Sometimes your research will hand you invaluable details and narrative moments. Reading the Elmo Ingenthron (from Borderland Rebellion) piece on Colonel Schnable’s Cave, I knew a quarryman would have dealt with cedar trees by burning, or clearing and grubbing then burning. And what more grizzly evidence do we need of the downward spiral of violence in the Ozarks than the end of the monster Alf Bolin. If Ozark, why not Springfield.

6) Beware of naturalism: The worst mistake you can make as a fiction writer is to assume that you must cover every event in the past in the timeline history fashioned. YOU are in charge; make it up; cut it out; change it how you want it. There are only four rules to writing fiction—beginning, middle, end, and thrill us. And there are only two purposes—entertainment and empathy. Never, in my humble opine, should a fiction book be held up as a work of history. Never. It is the job of the fiction writer to make up stories about Springfield. It is the role of the historian to tell the story of Springfield. Of and About, those two prepositions make all the difference.

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Steve Yates

About Steve Yates

Steve Yates was born and reared in Springfield, Missouri. He is the winner of the 2012 Juniper Prize, and his short story collection, Some Kinds of Love: Stories, was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in April 2013. Portions of his novel, Morkan’s Quarry (Moon City Press 2010) appeared in Missouri Review, Ontario Review, and South Carolina Review. A novella-length excerpt was a finalist in the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society Faulkner / Wisdom Award for the Best Novella. Moon City Press published the sequel, The Teeth of the Souls, in March of 2015. Two excerpts from it appeared in Missouri Review, one in Elder Mountain: A Journal of Ozarks Studies, and a novella-length excerpt in Kansas Quarterly/Arkansas Review. He is the winner of the 2013 Knickerbocker Prize from Big Fiction Magazine for his novella, “Sandy and Wayne.” Dock Street Press will publish Sandy and Wayne as a stand-alone book in 2016. For his fiction, Yates is the recipient of a grant from the Arkansas Arts Council and twice the recipient of grants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. His short stories have appeared in TriQuarterly, Southwest Review, Texas Review, Laurel Review, Western Humanities Review, Turnstile, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, Valley Voices, and elsewhere. Yates is assistant director / marketing director at University Press of Mississippi. More about his activities marketing books resides at Mississippi Bookstores and Louisiana Bookstores. Yates lives in Flowood with his wife Tammy.