It’s a tricky business, writing historical fiction

It’s not easy to write historical fiction, I’m discovering as I continue to work on my manuscript, Famine Bay.  It’s no wonder that books like Shogun are classics; there are so few that do it well.

I’m writing about a period in the 17th century, the 1680s. I can’t even use certain adjectives without first checking to see if the things they refer to were invented at the time. Before I could use “gunmetal grey,” for example, I had to first check to see if guns had been around. Turns out they were invented by the Chinese in the 12th century, but these were handheld cannons that evolved into flintlocks, and then muskets, not handguns. These weapons were made mostly of wood. Scrap that descriptor: a character would never describe something as gunmetal grey in those circumstances.

I had a character peer into a mirror in New France,  to give another example, only to discover later that the only mirrors available at the time were Venetian, and they were very expensive and not likely to be found in a colonial settlement.

I can see, though, how it would be  easy to get so caught up in getting the history right that you lose sight of plot and character development. Historical fiction requires world-building in a world that none of us has ever been to. We can write sci-fi, by contrast, and use contemporary language and thoughts, but we can’t pull that off in historical fiction. The language doesn’t have to be formal, but you can’t use the common clichés and metaphors that we’re used to hearing today, since most of these developed much later on.

Now, it’s not like someone from the 1600s is going to criticize my errors. It’s easier, in that sense, to write this book than it was to write about Cuba as I did in my Inspector Ramirez series. When I got something wrong there, readers let me know: thousands of them have been there after all, whereas no living person has ever been in 17th century anything. But I want to at least try to get things right.  I have a doctorate in Aboriginal law/history and a degree in Canadian History so I have no excuse for not trying.

In my case, it’s made more difficult by the fact that some of the French and Haudenosaunee words in the historical documents can’t be translated. No one knows what they mean anymore, not even the professional translators I’ve consulted, not the traditional people. The Aboriginal names of some of the nations that the Five Nations Confederacy claim to have conquered, for example, no longer have content. We don’t know who these people were or where they lived.

And what was the cheval marin that French soldiers killed on the Richelieu River? The Jesuit priest accompanying them drew a terrifying sketch of this horrible monster, and called it a sea horse, but his sketch has long since disappeared into the shadows of time.

I have a character in the manuscript who muses that as long as there is a child somewhere who can learn the language of a dying nation, whole nations can be reborn. For some reason, it made me think of the last passenger pigeon, the one that died in a museum: there’s some attempt to resurrect her apparently by merging her DNA with a common pigeon. I would guess that as close as they come, it won’t be the same.

There were billions of these birds in the 1800s; there could be a million in a single flock. They make an appearance in my manuscript too — a flock of thousands of birds that dips and turns like one single creature, darkening the skies, until they fly away gracefully. I imagine myself watching them five hundred years ago in the midst of constant conflict and warfare and change, thinking at least those birds would last forever.




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6 Responses to It’s a tricky business, writing historical fiction

  1. KarenOh says:

    Well, thank you for making an effort to be as authentic as you can while still serving the story! It always jars me out of the story when I spot a glaring anachronism. Incidentally, New France might have had mirrors made out of polished bronze or silver, back in the day!

    It’s not such a big deal now, but Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors probably cost more than lining the walls with gold, when the room was new.


    • Peggy Blair says:

      Indeed. The King brought Venetian mirror-makers in to furnish that room with mirrors because of his edict that all decorative items had to be made in France. I did look up whether other kinds of mirrors might have been used and I actually don’t think they were around, but I managed to figure out a way to deal with the issue. Thanks!


  2. MishaBurnett says:

    I’m working on a novel set in 1947 and I keep running into things I don’t know. One of my characters is a doctor, and I need to know not only what medicine was like in ’47, but also what the British army would have used prior to WWII (since that is his background) and what would have been available in East Berlin just after the war. (Spoiler: Not a lot.)

    Another one of my characters is a Soviet intelligence officer, and just trying to keep track of what the GRU and the KGB did–not to mention the Stasi police of Germany–is a headache.

    All this, and I’m working with events that are in living memory and extremely well documented–what you’re doing is far more difficult.


  3. Peggy Blair says:

    Love the sound of your book; my 4th in the Ramirez series, Umbrella Man, required that I do a pile of research into the KGB. Not all that easy to find information about a secret police force either. Good luck with it!


  4. Lawrence Day says:

    Shogun is the masterwork yet even James Clavel had a palm-forehead moment when a reader pointed out that at the very beginning his crashing 1600 ship had an anachronistic wheel instead of a tiller.


  5. Peggy Blair says:

    Ha! Good to know. Thanks!


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