I have two historical novels under my belt. Saving Annabelle is ready to go out into the world, and I am querying agents now. God’s Mirror is being expanded and revised. I also have the outline and some sketches for the next novel, which happens to be historical as well. This is funny because I don’t consider myself a historical novelist. The stories I want to tell happen to be best set in the past. I don’t choose the timeframe, my stories do.
Really, they do.
Why, when I’ve got three novels set in the past, do I not consider myself a historical novelist?
Because I am not in love with a particular period of history. I don’t even know what such a person would be called. Like bibliophile or Anglophile, would the person enamored of the 19th century be a Victoriophile? The 14th century: a Medievophile? That covers Saving Annabelle’s and God’s Mirror’s time periods, but the next book is set during the spice trade’s heyday, during the 17th century. I have no idea what that person would be called. Because I’m not in love with a period, I don’t aim to set my stories there. You see, I will go where my stories lead me. Let me tell you, this is not a point of pride for me; it just is. If I set everything in the mid-19th century, I’d become an expert on that period and my research from one book to the next would be expedited. By letting my stories dictate their setting and period, I end up in the research trenches anew with each story, scrabbling after the most mundane little factlet. In the moment, I am convinced that calling the fur trim on the lady’s robe by the proper name—vair—will make the prose sing with authenticity, even though no modern person I’ve met has ever heard of vair! Revision requires the weeding out of many of those factlets so that they do not bog down the prose and point big neon signs at the Research, what I call “Showing My Work.”
The thing is, those little factlets are the signposts of historical facts. Historical facts are crucial to making a work authentic. The challenge of the factlet is twofold: 1. Include enough to wow the reader, but not so many as to be tedious; and 2. Craft each factlet in such a way that its significance is apparent without hitting the reader over the head, what I call a “2 x 4.” You see, vair is a type of squirrel that was popular with the nobility in the 14th century. It’s July. It’s hot. Lady Linnet is stroking the vair trim on the sleeve of her gown. Factlet: vair. Fact: a signifier of wealth and class. This is the detail that shapes character and provides subtext.
And this is why I am a fool: setting my books in the past requires endless, tedious research into the most minute, mundane series of factlets. And it is why I love this work: I get to learn all these minute, mundane factlets about a period of history, and then—this is the best part—I get to shape them into something meaningful. During the research on God’s Mirror, I was out to dinner with friends and I shared how executioners of the period could show mercy on the condemned by tying a noose about the neck and pulling it, effectively choking the person to death before she was consumed by flames. And when the Inquisition was particularly unhappy with a person, as they were with Marguerite Porete, the Inquisitor would forbid the executioner to show mercy. As the writer, crafting layers of meaning, I ask you, who has more power in this situation, the Church’s executor or the man laying the faggots around the stake?
I bet you learned something new, which is one of the cool things about historical fiction. And if you are so moved, please share these factlets at your next dinner party, and then if someone asks how you know this, tell her you have a friend in the trenches!
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