Friday, April 16, 2010

GUEST POST: Why Write Historical Fiction?

Gary Corby is an Australian mystery author whose debut novel, The Pericles Commission, comes out on October 12, 2010. He's also a regular in the blogosphere, and runs the always entertaining and informative A dead man fell from the sky.

An editor asked the other day what caused a techie like me to become an author.  I had to write one of those About the Author notes, you see, and she thought the answer would be interesting.  But I've written, off and on, since I was a teenager, and I can't for the life of me remember why I started, except perhaps that I've read non-stop all my life, and I figured I may as well add to the book collection.

A more interesting question is why did I choose to write historical mysteries, and why in Ancient Greece?  There are a lot of writers wandering about the internet, and the motive, whenever you ask them why they write the stories they do, is almost invariably that this is the story they have to write.

When it comes to choice of genre and sub-genre I totally understand.  All the genres are equally great and it's really a matter of taste.  

I write historical mysteries because historicals contain almost all the other genres within them, and I love puzzle stories.

You can find historical mysteries that contain romance (lots of those), or military adventure (Simon Scarrow), or are political thrillers (Steven Saylor & John Maddox Roberts), are CSI (Ariana Franklin) or YA (Caroline Lawrence).  If mainstream lit is your thing then you should be reading  Mary Renault and Patrick O'Brian (not mysteries, but definitely historicals).  If you enjoy epic fantasy then there are times and places in our history so odd that they might as well be on another planet.  You might even find magic realism: an historical can't have working magic, but there have been plenty of people who believed in magic and practiced it as if it worked.  Historicals can be serious, like Margaret Doody and CJ Sansom, or funny,, I hope.

Historical mysteries cluster.  They cluster about the times that matter not only to the characters in it, but to us today; times which fascinate us, or about which we already know a lot.  Mediaeval Europe and Ancient Rome are popular.  So is Victorian England.  It would be possible to set an historical mystery in, say, prehistoric Vanuatu, but much as I enjoy visiting those lovely islands, it would be a hard sell to publish a series set there.  You might have more luck with Easter Island because it comes complete with its own enduring mystery.  There have been some excellent historical mysteries set in out of the way places, but not so many because it becomes harder for the reader to identify.  Reader buy-in matters a very great deal.

I choose to write historical mysteries in Classical Greece, and Athens in particular, for a simple reason: that period of history matters a great deal to us.  There was a 50 year period, called the Golden Age, when Athens founded western civilization.  With malice aforethought I placed my hero and heroine so that their career begins right at the start of the Golden Age.  If they survive, they will live to see the power of the first democracy, the beginning of modern drama — the first stage plays! — the beginning of science, the explosion of philosophy, the birth — literally — of modern medicine.  Hippocrates was born in the same year as my first book is set, which just happens to be the same year that Athens invented full democracy, which just happens to be the same year Pericles rose to power.  This was one of those rare moments that changed the world forever.

It seems to me there are a few times and places which meet the criteria for a good setting but which have seen little action from authors.  Classical Greece is one — that's why I'm there! — but let me list a few wild thoughts:

It'd be great to read an early homo sapiens mystery (while avoiding any cave bear clans etc), or a Neanderthal mystery, or even a homo erectus mystery.  I'm not brave enough to try, but I'd love to see some other poor fool risk it.  Imagine a very early settlement somewhere during the birth of farming and agriculture.

I do think Easter Island would be a good try.  You'd set it right at the moment their civilization collapsed.

There was a sophisticated very early culture in Europe which erected piles of standing stones.  There are zillions of them around Carnac in Brittany.  Who were these people?  Why did they erect hundreds and hundreds of these stones?  There has to be a story or two in there somewhere.

Mesopotamia.  Of course.

The Sultanate at the time of Haroun al-Rashid.

Europe under Charlemagne.

The transition period of the late Roman Empire when official Christian dogma was going through its very argumentative formation.  Plenty of motive for murder there!  It may be my ignorance, but I'm not aware of any writers who've spent time in that period.

Not nearly enough Renaissance mysteries involving the great masters of art.  Plenty of motive for murder there too.  I can well imagine a plot in which Michaelangelo and da Vinci go for each other's throats.  (And they did, at one point, meet for an artistic showdown...paintbrushes at 20 paces.)

OK, that's my list.  Feel free to start writing.


Rick Daley said...

Great post, thanks Gary!

I like historical fiction that seems so spot-on you can't tell where the lines are drawn between the novel and the real story. My favorite novel is Ken Follett's THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, which paints a very vivid picture of life in the middle ages and the climax seamlessly dovetails into a historic event - the murder of Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Elisabeth Black said...

I might actually be salivating after reading this list.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Rick. Then you would love the Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser. Fraser set the gold standard for historical accuracy.

Flashman blunders his way through every great military disaster of the Victorian age (he led the Charge of the Light Brigade and fought at Custer's Last Stand, to name only two), yet despite being a cad, a bully, and a bounder, he always emerges with laurels.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Elisabeth, glad you like the ideas. There's only one way you'll get to read all these stories though. You'll have to write a few yourself...

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie asked me about the showdown between da Vinci and Michaelangelo.

It happened in 1504 when both of them were commissioned to decorate the council room of Florence. Talk about overkill.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Easter Island is totally cool. I enjoyed Collapse by Jared Diamond. It's non-fiction, but provides an intriguing theory as to why Easter Island went kaput.

I can't think of a single novel set their either. Hmmmm...

Thanks for the guest post, Gary!

Gary Corby said...

Thanks for the opportunity to be here, Stephanie et al.!

Joshua McCune said...

Gary, this was fantastic, per your usual. One of my first stories was set in 83 B.C. Rome (and China) lots of fun, and learned a lot, but I'd love to see more Charlemagne-era books... and a Neanderthal mystery could be amazingly wicked, IMO.

L. T. Host said...

My first book was actually a historical FANTASY set in the transition period of Rome, about 300-400 AD, towards the end of Constantine. I loved that story because even though it was a fantasy, the history made it seem almost plausible.

Someday I'll play around with this again. I love historical fiction. Great post, and I have to say thank you too for guest-ing for us!

Amalia Dillin said...

Actually Early Byzantine/Early Christian Rome is a pretty understudied time in history even in Academia. I was fortunate to have a history professor at my school who specialized in that field, so I was able to take a class on Byzantine Civ which was quite honestly fascinating, and I was pointed in the direction of quite a few primary sources I otherwise might never have seen. It's so strange that we overlook that period a lot-- maybe because it was so tumultuous and so different from what we consider the Christian world to be today. But there are a LOT of interesting elements that would make a great book. I mean, Eunuchs alone add a great deal of culture that we no longer have in the modern world. Let me tell you, reading about the Eunuch and the role they played in society is fascinating and bizarre, both.

I'd love to see something written around Charlemagne's time. It's very reminiscent of King Arthur, I think. My husband is just starting to study it and get it into now-- that was the one history class he didn't take with me in college. Charlemagne himself is a very interesting character.

Great post, Gary! You've got my wheels turning for future novels now.

Gary Corby said...

Thanks Bane. The Neanderthal would be a toughie, of course, but it should be good for at least one book!

You'd have to give them speech, or dialogue would be tricky. But there's evidence for speech. I imagine a situation where there's rivalry with the camp of homo sapiens next door, and someone's died in between the camps.

Charlemagne would be much easier!

Gary Corby said...

Hi L.T.

I'm curious. What fantasy did you put into that book?

Gary Corby said...

Hi Amalia.

Byzantine mysteries seem to be few and far between, but there is one series I know of that's pretty good: The John the Eunuch Mysteries, by Mary Reed & Eric Mayer.

L. T. Host said...

Glad you asked-- it was a story about what happened to the classical gods (Greek/ Roman) when the new Christian god started gaining popularity. My MC was the North Wind (though I made her, uh, a her) and I couched it in Europe with the Germanic tribes warring with the Roman territories, who were trying to convert the barbarians. There were wizards, and of course the classical gods, so I quantify it as a historical fantasy. :)

Gary Corby said...

Writing Gods and Goddesses must surely be hard to do.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Great post! I have a great respect for mystery writers. I think a good mystery is one of the most difficult things to write!

Gary Corby said...

That's an interesting point, my Lady. I'm glad you raised it.

It seems to me fairly easy to write a mediocre mystery - merely follow some basic rules to churn out something average at best - but very hard indeed to write a quality mystery. And I suggest that's true of all genres.

L. T. Host said...

I don't know about any more difficult than any other writing-- but it was certainly fun. It's definitely a first novel, haha, but I'm still fond of it.