August 21, 2013

Keeping the Past from Being Too Present

By Siri Mitchell

As an author of historical novels, I want my stories to be true to the times, I want them to feel authentic, but I don’t want them to read like a history book. Here are a few tips I’ve found to keep story front and center. I try to remember that:      
1.  A little goes a long way. Research as much as you possibly can and then try your best not to use more than a tenth of what you learned. What readers most want is a compelling story, not a string of quaint ideas and little-known facts strung together into a narrative. Fiction readers are wily. They can tell when you’re trying to educate them and when you’re simply hoping to entertain them.   

2.   It’s not about me. The things you find absolutely fascinating about eras of the past are probably things that your characters would have seen as commonplace. The key in deciding what details to put in and leave out is seeing the setting through your characters’ eyes. If they wouldn’t notice or remark upon something, then neither should you.   

3.   Tunnel vision is a good thing. Once I step into my character’s point-of-view, I must only use metaphors and comparisons to things he or she would have knowledge of or experience with. My character might never have seen an ocean (so no ‘waves of fear’, no ‘swept in like the tide’, being adrift, or the scuttling of anything). My characters might never have seen a glittering jewel (no emerald-green eyes or ruby-colored gowns). If my character is an urban dweller there should be no references to ‘robin’s egg blue’ and maybe not even to a clear sky depending upon the era in which you’re writing.   

4.   I should check my modern-day prejudices at the door. There are lots of things that can make a writer squeamish about the past, especially when it’s viewed from a modern perspective. Don’t believe children should be seen and not heard? Don’t think anyone should be required to wear a corset or marry strictly to further family ambitions? Your characters likely did. You need to let your characters be true to the times, no matter how backward they may seem to you. Let them be the product of their era’s and prejudices, view those things just like they did: matter-of-fact, without guilt or apology. 

5.   My story isn’t over when it’s over; and it doesn’t start when it starts. Don’t just research your novel from first page to last. You need to know where your characters came from and where they’re going. What kinds of thoughts and attitudes were ‘old-fashioned’ during your characters’ era? And what would it have looked like for them to be forward-thinking? What was history leaning towards and what was it retreating from?

When I keep these tips in mind, then my story steps to the forefront and history stays where it’s supposed to: in the background.
Siri Mitchell is the author of a dozen novels. Among them are the critically acclaimed Christy Award finalists Chateau of Echoes, The Cubicle Next Door, and She Walks in Beauty. A graduate of the University of Washington with a degree in business, she has worked in many different levels of government. As a military spouse, she has lived in places as varied as Tokyo and Paris. Readers can visit Siri at her website:
Twitter @SiriMitchell 

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