Historical Fiction: Proceed with Caution in Case of Immortality

By Rabbi Galina Trefil (author of The Incomplete Ones: A Tale of Slavery)

In the Gulf of Cambay, in a now-underwater city, a slab was brought up by archaeologists. It had what appeared to be possible inscriptions so ancient that they might date back to the last Ice Age.

If this was indeed an inscription, imagine who the author of that inscription was. Did he or she ever dream that their work would survive so long; indeed, have such a tremendous impact on world views? It must have seemed, at the time that it was written, unlikely that, of all the works created, this was the one fate chose to survive the ages.

But that is the way of our profession. As writers, we never know which of us will stand the test of time. With that threat of potential immortality hanging over our heads, we must proceed with full caution that, if our words become our legacy, they bring truth; not wounds. This is so for all authors, but particularly so in the field of historical fiction because this area is profoundly personal.

As genealogy is becoming easier and easier to research, thanks to technology, more people are increasingly aware of the individual stories of their own families, going back sometimes many centuries. So don’t think, for example, that you can write about a battle four hundred years ago and escape having a reader who knows that their direct ancestor died in it. Yes, that will happen. You have the ability to bring education to such a scenario… or your sloppiness can leave this reader rolling their eyes or, worse, angry and inclined to persuade others from ever reading you… which, if you don’t devote proper time to research, you will deserve.

So if you’ve chosen this uphill battle of a genre to be yours, there are a few tidbits that you might want to think about doing before you start your book.

Be Aware of Its Value for Posterity

The number one thing that you need to be aware of, sadly, is that your book might be the only one that your reader ever picks up on the subject you are writing about. If you portray things inaccurately, you will have people citing your work and your name as proof that the mistake (hopefully not a deliberate lie) is factual.

You are also now an expert in the field that you write about. No, there’s no dodging that bullet. If you aren’t willing to do what it takes to make you an expert, write about something else… because, believe me, to a merciless audience of critics, you will come off as an idiot. And the idiocy will spread.

Do Your Research

Do not dream of basing your storyline on a single history book. That’s a cop-out. Read. A lot. Until you have the subject pouring out of your ears and bleeding out of your eyes and you could recite it in your sleep, do not stop reading more books on it.

Read books with opposite points of view regarding the subject, no matter how ridiculous some of the viewpoints seem. You need to know not just what is true about your subject, but also be able to recognize the lies about it, as well as how those lies came into existence. Both sides are usually whitewashing something, so the visual dig should land you some plot treasure troves you would never have dreamed of.

Read totally off-topic letters and books dated from the time period to familiarize yourself with the way that people spoke. These should also yield some truly, to our minds, odd beliefs up that your characters likely would have lived by.

Give References

Pay extra attention to historical footnotes. I cannot stress this advice enough because it is incredibly shameful how much history of gargantuan importance gets shoved off into only one or two sentences in a small-printed margin. I’ve found whole genocides that other authors haven’t touched on in footnotes before—not once, but several times.

They say that history is written by the victors for a reason and, as a writer, you have to remember that, once upon a time, a lot of victors were very proud of the things that their descendants today would prefer to hide.

It is finding and writing about these obscured details which will make your work unique from your contemporaries.

Use Contemporary Writing to Showcase Your Historical Thoughts

Just because you are familiarizing yourself with the language of the time period, don’t overdo it with dead words when you start writing. If you overload your reader with “thou” and “thee,” et cetera, you run the risk of coming off as either melodramatic or possibly even the dread c word: “cliché”. Your reader will focus on the terminology that your character is using, rather than what they are saying.  Instead of using fully outdated terms, try instead to keep your thesaurus and dictionary close to you when you write. Build up your vocabulary. Just by your characters avoiding modern slang and being generous in their use in four-syllable adjectives, you can convey an older time period than the “lol, ikr, ttyl generation” that we live in today.

Read Other Works Written during the Timeline

One truly excellent place to do easy time-accurate research that often gets overlooked is folktales. In this genre, you will find a fountain of mundane, background data which will help you flesh out the world of your characters, such as descriptions of clothing, furniture, tools, family relationships, music, religion; food. Just about anything else you might not think of off the top of your head, but will help you later, it’s there. Folktales also tend to portray cultural values tremendously more honestly than many works of non-fiction.

Examine cookbooks. When you’re trying to evoke emotion in a reader, don’t underestimate the power of taste; of making your reader hungry. If you describe a period-accurate dish or one that is unique to that particular culture, it tends to transport your audience in a way that talking about objects and landscapes simply does not do.  It is relatable quicker because the reader knows they are much more likely to be able to, say, replicate an old-school Romanian culinary delight than go back five and a half centuries to when Dracula was chewing on it…. Just be careful regarding cooking as such a tool because modern trade routes weren’t necessarily around a few centuries back and if you have Dracula eating potatoes, well, there’s going to be some complaints because these were South American imports which he never had access to.

Examine Their Lifestyle

Trade routes… Don’t buy into the myth that everyone back in time was super-glued to the land. Heck, even the Neanderthals had trade routes that spanned a distance of several countries. Characters should be written as appropriate to their culture, but don’t imagine that they didn’t desire to broaden their horizons by learning about things that were foreign. Don’t assume “foreign” did not come in, either through goods or by force, to influence them.

Research medicine and weaponry of the time and place extremely thoroughly, because this these two often bounce off each other in terms of things you need to know. Both fall under the category of “technology.” Especially with medicine, it tends to be the modern inclination to assume our ancestors were morons, but using this stereotype doesn’t make you a better writer—just a bad researcher. Brain surgery has been around thousands of years. Maybe everybody didn’t have access to it, but that certainly doesn’t mean that they weren’t aware of it. The same modern arrogance often comes into play with weapons, but even the stone tools tens of thousands of years old found in caves, which are easy to guffaw at as being simple, required great skill to construct and had razor-sharp edges…

In closing, if a translation for the slab from the Gulf of Cambay suddenly appeared and the writing was discovered to be obvious historical fiction, imagine how important it would be if the writer had taken the time to do proper research. And, imagine how dreadful it would be if the author had been a flake or intentionally portrayed things inaccurately.

You are not the writer from the Gulf of Cambay, but neither do you know what influence your work will have ten years or even ten thousand years down the line. So be a writer future generations will be able to read and learn from.

Write responsibly with a healthy fear and respect of the consequences of perpetual literary endurance.

About the Writer:

Rabbi Galina Trefil is a human rights activist, who uses historical fiction as a tool to emphasize the greater need for women’s and minority equal rights.

Her blog Romani Eyes on Gypsy Film published by World Artists Initiative Khetanes, showcases Hollywood’s racism against and exploitation of Romani people. Her first book, The Incomplete Ones: A Tale of Slavery, explores the violence against the Romani in Eastern Europe. Her second book, “A Girl Named Tears,” which begins a series on the historical figure Dracula, is due out this month.

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