Historical fiction presents interesting complications primarily in the form of accuracy. We have to remember when we’re writing historical that we’re not writing a factual piece so there’s space to smudge the details of the past. For instance, having an invention appear a few years earlier than it actually did, changing fashions to suit an aesthetic, think of steampunk a combination of fantasy and history, or making a few tweaks to modernise the world a bit for readers. As we’re writing fiction it also means we don’t necessarily have to give in-depth descriptions of historical elements. The history of the corset might be very interesting but we don’t need to tell the reader it if it doesn’t affect the story.
Of course, writing historical fiction also has problematic elements based on an assumed version of the past rather than the reality of the past. Here you might point out I just said we’re creating a fictional version of the past. There’s a difference between creating a fictional version of the past and ignoring the reality of the past. An example would be the difference between writing a Victorian historical novel and writing a Victoriana novel. In a Victorian historical novel we might acknowledge the realities of the Victorian period in a Victoriana novel is often fancy people taking tea, going to parties, and wielding parasols where you probably won’t hear about the workhouse or the realities of being poor in the Victorian era. This doesn’t mean one is better than the other, nor does it necessarily mean that one is more historically accurate than the other. A Victoriana novel might be historically accurate but usually it deals with the history of the British upper class rather than the version of history experienced by the majority of people in the period.
This plays into what we reveal in our story depending on what our story is about. There are related issues about what we want to show we’re aware of but this again goes back to the fact we’re writing a piece of fiction not fact so we don’t want large sections of information digressing from the story. We can therefore perhaps reveal an awareness of what’s going on around the characters through passing mentions: newspaper articles, literature available (if any), and comments in conversation.
It’s important to remember that history is as diverse as the modern day and trying to cut diversity by saying it’s not historically accurate doesn’t work. Just using the previous example of stories set in Victorian Britain which was the centre of a diverse empire, we can see the excuse doesn’t work.
We’re writing a fiction not fact but we shouldn’t use either as an excuse to narrow our fictional world.
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