19 June 2011

History and Story

If you squint really hard, you can see Gozer standing at the top.

I've been thinking about the relationship between history and fiction this week, especially thanks to a post by Eileen Wiedbrauk over at Speak Coffee to Me.

As a former literary scholar, I have a strange relationship with history. I've played in archives. I've held 400 year old manuscripts in my hands (and been dismayed as tiny bits crumbled off the edges, but one was supposed to know about that). But any research I did into history was always performed not in order to discover facts or truths about the past, but to help me understand literature better. Why did people write what they wrote? That was what I was seeking to understand. When you study literature, it's always in service of interpretation, rather than cold hard facts.

So when Eileen complained about the intrusion into a perfectly decent witch / vampire / time travel novel she was reading of "passages where it feels like the author stopped writing a novel, and started writing a paper," it really got me thinking. What is the ideal relationship between history and fiction?

Here's my tentative theory. Only a history buff is going to care if you get the little picky details right, or which version of "the facts" you decide to use in your story. As a reader, I am much more interested in how you use history to engage me in your story. To that end, it matters way less to me that the history is accurate or even remotely true than how that history plays out in the novel.

The last two novels I've read have been ghost stories. One was The White Devil by Justin Evans and the other (which I'm in the middle of, and totally in love with) is Audrey's Door by Sarah Langan. Both feature main characters who perform historical research in their efforts to figure out why they are being haunted. I recommend both, but my point here is that these books have complex relationships with history.

In The White Devil, Evans draws on a couple of different interludes in the biography of Byron - yes, the poet - to create a quite creepy ghost. He confirms that Yes, All that Stuff about Byron Is Really True in an article on his website, but qualifies that immediately: "Or most of it." I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but Evans makes it quite clear that he has mashed historical figures together with his school experiences in England in service of his story. In other words, he's painting with history rather than sticking pedantically to the "truth."

Sarah Langan takes the use of history a step further in Audrey's Door, a book that features a building that seems designed to hold disturbing energies. As far as I can tell, she pretty much made up a style of architecture for the novel (a satanic style, no less). Like Evans's website, the site for Audrey's Door offers up some historical backdrop. Chaotic Naturalism sounds like a valid name for a style of architecture, doesn't it? The article I've linked to there even appears researchy, and goes so far as to offer a small bibliography. Some of the links are real; but the relationship between these slices of history and the history constructed in the novel is ephemeral at best. There are hints of intersections with reality. On another page, Langan mentions "Medium and Occultist Helena Blavsky," a clear riff on the name of Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the spiritualist group The Theosophical Society. This is not history: it's a super-clever riff on history.

(The links to Ivan Reitman's and Harold Ramis's IMDB pages, contained in the bibliographies, are clever - who ya gonna call? I see what you did there, Sarah.)

In the book itself, Langan has constructed an impressive array of faux-historical documents as background to the story. Each one of them builds tension. Each one could have been taken from the pages of an academic journal or a newspaper. If some of them were real, I wouldn't be surprised at all.

Do you see how brilliant this is? By nestling her novel's history in real world history, Langan has freedom to create story elements that suit her needs, but still feel real. She's obviously done her research, but she's used it  for inspiration rather than staying wedded to it.



Anonymous said...

Great points, and awesome post! I'll have to check those two books out soon, they seem really interesting. :)

Elizabeth Twist said...

Thanks, Madeline. Audrey's Door won the Stoker award for Best Novel last year, so I'm not the only one who liked it.

Trisha said...

I don't think you need to drown a novel in details, but what details you DO have in there should be historically accurate. And I guess (to fall back on a cliché) it's about that fine line between showing & telling, too.

Elizabeth Twist said...

I guess my question is why details have to be historically accurate. What do we mean by accuracy, anyway? Sarah Langan's "history" feels true. It has verisimilitude. Does it matter if it's fabricated? It serves the story. It's part of the story.

Deborah Walker said...

Very interesting, Elizabeth. I've had this experience, when a friend of mine presented a fantasy story set in Celtic times (can't remember exactly) to a crit group.

Unfortunately for her there were some experts in the group. They were absolutely outraged at the historical inaccuracies. They'd thrown those readers right out of the story. There was a lot of talk about rabbits, I seem to recall.Yet to me in my ignorance I couldn't care less.

Similar thing happened to me, with a science fiction story about particle physics which was critted by a physics prof.

What am I trying to say? Know your audience, I think. Some readers will be outraged by let's say bad history (and as you've pointed out, what is history)? Not everyone reading your story is going to be a Professor. The vast majority of reader won't know and won't care, but a small minority might be very vocal about their objections.

I make up my own science, all the time but I use our understanding of reality as a jumping off point. It will probally still outrage some, but that's okay. Story is much more important to me.

Margo Lerwill said...

Sorry, I guess I'm with the crowd that gets thrown out of a story with glaring inaccuracies. It damages the believability for me. Frequently, it also results in not just a violaton of the facts but of the spirit of the history (or more often for me, the mythology). It ends up feeling to me like the writer has no respect or love for the topic. (So why use it unless it's to cash in on other people's love for the topic in a cheap and cynical manner?) It's just something to use and abuse and too often ends up reading like cheap appropriation.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Thanks for your comments, Debs and Margo. You're reminding me that I do in fact blow my stack when I see anachronisms pop up in books and movies, so I guess I'm not entirely in favour of stomping all over history (unless you're doing it for the sake of hilarity, a la Mel Brooks).

I'm wondering if we can come up with some kind of distinction between cheap appropriation - which, as you point out, Margo, is off-putting and lazy - and loving, wiley and smart appropriation? If you know and respect a healthy proportion of facts (as Justin Evans and Sarah Langan clearly do), and you've got a great sense of the flavour of your time period or mythology, then you can work these factors in favour of your story. To me that isn't appropriation so much as really knowing your stuff.

I personally like doing research and I don't favour writer laziness, but there is a point, as Eileen pointed out in her post, where fact-based info dumps do not serve the story no matter how accurate they are.

Margo Lerwill said...

I wonder if it's not so much something an author does consciously but something about the way they feels that comes across in the writing. I mentioned the difference between being true to facts and being true to spirit. If a writer really knows their topic and really has enthusiasm and respect for it, I think they are able to capture the spirit in a way that makes playing with the facts more acceptible to me, because what they will choose to play with will usually not violate the spirit of the history or the myth.

So I guess my advice to someone asking themselves about this would be to write about a historical period or a mythology that you love and really understand on a level beyond basic recital of facts and dates.

Elizabeth Twist said...

That makes sense to me, Margo. It's more about capturing the essence or feeling of a time period or mythology than it is about cold hard facts.

For my money, the best way to access a time period or mythology is to read works original to that time period or mythology. That way you're immersing yourself in the perspective people held at that time or within that mythos. Reading historical studies is helpful, but only to a point.

Margo Lerwill said...

I would suggest that people working with the history look at the mythology and culture for context and those working with the culture and mythology look to the history for additional context.

Celtic history and myth is an excellent example of a topic wherein these different aspects are all integral pieces of an overall picture.

Deborah Walker said...

Dean Wesley Smith has an excellent post on this issue, Elizabeth.

Margo Lerwill said...

Interesting how different Dean Wesley Smith's advice is from John Locke's when it comes to who we should write. DWS says "the majority of readers", Locke the ultra-loyal portion of the target audience.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

Hi Elizabeth
You've been awarded the Stylish Blogger award. Can you stop by my blog to collect sometime?

Trisha said...

Hey, just letting you know I received the Buffy books. Wooo!! Just mentioned them on my blog, however will be sharing some pics later ;)

Liz Hellebuyck said...

For me the facts are important, but they shouldn't be used just to add to the word count. If it doesn't help the story along, the reader won't want to read about it. This is fiction after all right?

For me it also depends on if your setting is based on fact or fiction. If you are setting a story in today's Paris, it implies that any history about the city should match reality. If you are writing fantasy about another world though, making it all up is fine.