Wednesday, October 23
Guest Author Jennifer Laam: Historical Imagination: Fact vs. Speculation
Heads up historical folks! Let's give a big welcome to Jennifer Laam, who's here to share some tips on writing historical fiction. I've always been curious how historical writers weave the truth with the fiction, and where to draw the line between what really happened and what makes a better story. Jennifer has fun take on using history without being a slave to it.
Jennifer earned her master’s degree in History from Oakland University in Michigan and her bachelor’s degree from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. She has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, traveled in Russia and Europe, and worked in education and non-profit development. She currently resides in Northern California. The Secret Daughter of the Tsar is her first novel.
Take it away Jennifer...
I write historical fiction…with a twist. I guess this means I deal more with historical imagination than history. I use historical figures as characters, but the actual events portrayed are not necessarily grounded in factual evidence.
How closely should a fiction writer adhere to facts? How much leeway do we allow our imaginations? Although this issue is huge among historical writers, the same question must affect other genres as well. Science fiction and crime procedurals come to mind. To varying degrees, all writers conduct research. After all, part of the excitement of writing is discovering new worlds and learning to see those worlds through the eyes of our characters.
When I knew I would be published, I started to read book reviews more closely. I began to notice that in some reviews of historical fiction, what I considered the tiniest “mistakes” in an author’s work were called out and dissected. Knowing I would soon face reviewers myself, I felt horrified. I woke up in the middle of the night playing out a scene or a piece of dialogue, questions racing through my brain. Did I double check the year? Had I used an anachronistic phrase? Was my geography even close to accurate?
When I confided these concerns to a friend, she reminded me that I write fiction. Historical fiction, sure. In her view, however, since it was fiction I could ultimately do whatever I wanted. Of course this line of thinking can be taken too far, to the point where labeling a work “historical” makes no sense. But going the other direction can get out of control as well. We’re all familiar with the much maligned “information dump.” We’re all guilty of this practice, too. At least I know I am. When I find a juicy historical tidbit I want it IN MY BOOK.
I suppose the trick is to strike the right balance between fact and speculation. I think most writers want to respect the boundaries of history, or the laws of science, or the facts they’ve uncovered. Writers also have huge imaginations that want desperately to play. I’m not going to pretend I have it all figured out. As I’ve been writing, rewriting, and editing (and tearing up pages and rewriting again), I do think I’ve better determined the right balance between historical fact and fictional speculation for my work.
Characters: I like it when historical figures interact with fictional characters. I read about the individual’s personality. I try to imagine how they would behave in various situations. To my mind, this is the type of research that differentiates historical fantasy from historical fiction. At the same time, a fiction writer uses this information differently than an academic historian. Inevitably, there is embellishment.
My current work-in-progress features Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s advisor. I put him in some completely fictional situations. For example, he dreams of constructing a mosque. The real Potemkin was tolerant of other religions. Therefore I maintain that this fictional scenario is in keeping with larger truths about his personality. It doesn’t belong in a biography of Potemkin, but I think it can work in a piece of historical fiction….after a few more rewrites, anyway.
Details/Setting the Scene: Keep your world accurate within reason. Research is important for details of wardrobe, food, leisure time activities, and other day to day business in your characters’ lives. I must add one caveat, though. You may make a mistake. So much information is out there. You may miss something a reader has discovered.
You might also make a mistake on purpose, for the sake of readability. While researching THE SECRET DAUGHTER OF THE TSAR, I ran across an article that discussed the “traditional” colors pink for newborn girls and blue for boys. According to the article, this is a fairly recent trend. I fussed a little while over this issue. It may have been more correct to make a boy’s nursery pink at the turn of the 20th century. However, I couldn’t think of a way to relay this information to the modern reader without breaking the flow of the story. I decided that in this case an anachronism made sense. Which leads me to my last point…
Your Book/Your Call: Do what feels right for your work. If you enjoy research and want as much accuracy as possible, go for it! Readers will appreciate your attention to detail. If you want to conduct light research and then lean more on your imagination, I say why not? Readers will appreciate your whimsy. No matter the genre, everyone has different tastes and your book will find the right audience. In the meantime, you might as well have fun with what you write. Embrace the process. Ultimately, that’s the one piece of writing advice we can all use every day.
About The Secret Daughter of the Tsar
In her riveting debut novel, (St. Martin’s Griffin; October 22, 2013), Jennifer Laam seamlessly braids together the stories of three women: Veronica, Lena, and Charlotte and imagines an alternate history for the Romanov family – one in which a secret fifth daughter, smuggled out of Russia before the revolution, continues the royal lineage to dramatic and unexpected consequences.
Veronica is an aspiring historian living in present-day Los Angeles when she meets a mysterious man who may be heir to the Russian throne. As she sets about investigating the legitimacy of his claim through a winding path of romance and deception, the ghosts of her own past begin to haunt her.
Lena, a servant in the imperial Russian court of 1902, is approached by the desperate Empress Alexandra. After conceiving four daughters, the Empress is determined to sire a son and believes Lena can help her. Once elevated to the Romanov’s treacherous inner circle, Lena finds herself under the watchful eye of the meddling Dowager Empress Marie.
Charlotte, a former ballerina living in World War II occupied Paris, receives a surprise visit from a German officer. Determined to protect her son from the Nazis, Charlotte escapes the city, but not before learning that the officer’s interest in her stems from his longstanding obsession with the fate of the Russian monarchy.
As Veronica's passion intensifies, and her search for the true heir to the throne takes a dangerous turn, the reader learns just how these three vastly different women are connected.