"has sharp, active sentences, brilliant plotting, doesn't tell me about the history of whalebone just because someone's wearing a corset, and speaks like I do. ... Yet stories like that never seem to reach the shelves because they don't obey the conventions of HF.To reassure you all that I do know something about this: I have had three historical novels published and they've gained good reviews. All happen to be for teenagers, but everything applies identically to adult HF. Fleshmarket is set in Scotland in the 1820s and The Highwayman's Footsteps and The Highwayman's Curse are set in England and then Scotland in the the 1760s. Luckily, many of you have already been very complimentary about them - phew! Also, of course, I read HF, though I also read and write other genres, too. In fact, the book by my bed just now is a wonderful debut HF crime novel by Alastair Sim, called The Unbelievers, published by Snowbooks. I highly recommend.
So I want to know - what REALLY ARE the HF conventions that an agent/publisher will demand? And if someone wants to write a story set in the past that knows how to end a sentence without seventeen subclauses, do they have to give up the HF tag and market it as lit fic?"
- Can you change history?
- Language - should it be authentic for the period?
- How much is too much info and research?
- You are inventing characters, so you are inevitably changing history. So, get over it.
- However, your readers must believe you. So, they will believe that an unknown man once met Henry IVth in a jousting tournament and tripped over his halberd [if halberds were around then, of which I've not a clue, but about which I would certainly have to have a clue if I was writing that period, which I wouldn't because halberds and jousting do nothing for me]; but they will not believe that Henry IVth had two heads. If you want H4 to have two heads, you'll have to go down the magical realism / dreamstate / totally weird route and hope that your readers are dabbling with illegal substances. Normal readers will believe that there was a fire in Edinburgh in 1829, even if there wasn't, but they won't believe that Edinburgh was entirely destroyed by a comet in 1829. Unless we are genuinely being asked to accept a parellel-world story.
- You cannot refer to something that didn't exist then. For example, if matches were invented in 1829, you cannot have matches being used in 1828. Some geeky pedant in hgh school will tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you are an idiot. This provides the most delicious opportunities for HF writers to show off. For example, you cannot imagine the pleasure I got from mentioning umbrellas and kaleidoscopes in Fleshmarket. Hehehehehehe. Nom nom nom, as my daughter would rightly say about cranberry and brie canapés.
- BUT you must NEVER show off your research treasures. My husband lying in bed reading my new novel and muttering "research alert" is the nightmare scenario for me. I don't know if Dan Brown is married but I hope his wife had the strength to do a hell of a lot of muttering. [I'll mention this more in the section about wearing your research lightly.]
- Do it very authentically.
- Do it moderately.
- Ignore it.
2. Moderation is the approach I use, even if moderation does not come naturally to me in other areas of my life. The trick here is not to use specifically archaic words or phrases but subtly to twist modern usage to create a gentle effect of oldness. There are some specific techniques and I offer you an example of each one, all taken from The Highwayman's Curse:
Correct formality of language where modern usage favours a grammatical slip: instead of the modern, "Was I no better than him?", my "archaic" version is, "Was I no better than he?"
Twist of word order: instead of the modern, "I had never met someone like...", my version is, "Never had I met someone like..."
Use of a slightly archaic word: instead of the modern, "It bothered me that...", I say, "It irked me that..."3. Ignoring the need for authentic language, while not being obviously anachronistic, in other words by avoiding colloquialism, slang, or words which could not have been used at the time, is possible. I think it would be unlikely to be used in a book for adults, unless it was a spoof, but it can more easily be used in children's books. For example, my friend and hugely successful colleague, Elizabeth Laird, uses this approach. Even her dialogue uses a very down-to-earth tone, the way that people today do speak. It works for her and creates a lovely simplicity of language.
NOTE: whichever of the above methods you use, someone will disapprove. Someone will want you to be more or less "authentic". Sometimes this is because most people don't actually know how people spoke at any given time in history; sometimes this is because you'll never satisfy a genuine expert. It's the same, as I know to my cost, with writing a local dialect or Scots language. You cannot do it correctly without alienating those who don't speak with that voice; and you cannot alter it without alienating those who do speak in that voice.
So, do your research and do it thoroughly. But never let us know just how much you did. Give only as much detail as you need to paint your picture but do paint it richly. That sounds like a paradox but it's one you have to get your head around. You have to find your own way, while thinking always of your reader. Draw him into the story with the richness of your story-telling, but don't ever make him think he's in a history lesson.
ONE OTHER POINT ABOUT WRITING HF:
Choose your year. It's not enough to tell yourself that the story is set "in the mid 18th Century". If you don't decide on the exact year and even month, you won't know whether there was a king or queen, whether the country was at war or not, what huge political issues were frightening or exercising people. Even though there were no news channels, iphones and Twitter, and even though lots of rural people would be slow to hear bits of news, it's not realistic for your characters to be lolling around drinking mead and not seeming to realise that they were a year into the Wars of the Roses...
DAN - I hope I've reassured you that the sort of HF you might like is published and does well. Maybe Catherine Hughes can recommend some specific titles? So, no, you certainly don't have to avoid the HF tag and think of it as lit fic. Though it can be literary as well - there's every "level" out there.
Do add recommendations for HF that follows any of the approaches I've mentioned. By the way, Cathereine has started a new blog which will eventually have loads of her reviews in categories - I think I'll ask her to be my unofficial assistant whenever I need suggestions of books to illustrate a point!
Zounds! Hark! Doth the clock chime? Methinks a beverage calleth. Would that coffee had thus far been discovered by people of these fair isles...