Blind Spots and Obsessions in Historical Fiction: What Were They Thinking?

pic for WUWhen the Madonna of the Veil came to light in 1930, the art world celebrated it as a newly discovered work of Botticelli. But doubts began to creep in four years later when Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, noticed something suspicious about the Renaissance masterpiece. Subsequent tests of the paint revealed it was a forgery, but the big tip-off was that the Madonna looked like a silent movie star. Jean Harlow, to be specific.

Every era has its blind spots – things that people simply cannot see at the time that become obvious a few years later. The forger who created the Madonna didn’t intend her to look like Jean Harlow. That was just how women looked in his day. If you’re writing historical fiction, recognizing and reproducing these blind spots can make your readers feel like they are truly immersed in the era you’re recreating.

One reason Alan Gordon’s Fool’s Guild mysteries work so well is that his characters inhabit the early thirteenth century. If you’re not familiar with the series, it involves members of a jester’s guild who work behind the scenes to manipulate nations toward a gentler, more humane government. Jesters, after all, can say anything to the king without fear of being beheaded (well, without much fear). One of the authentic details Gordon recreates is that everyone assumes the way to create the best government is to make sure the right man winds up as king. Someone has to have absolute power, because how else are you going to govern a nation?

Obsessions are another form of blind spot. One way Peter Tremayne creates the seventh-century atmosphere of the Sister Fidelma mysteries is through the frequent arguments over arcane religious customs, like how to calculate the correct date of Easter. Everyone agreed that Easter was the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the vernal equinox. The disagreement was over whether a day began at sunrise or sunset, and your answer could lead to you celebrating the holiday five weeks earlier or later than your fellow believers. Granted, there was also some politics involved in the question, but it’s still hard not to look back now and say, “Just flip a coin, guys.”

Of course, it’s possible to go overboard in showing your historical characters’ obsessions.

Sixteenth-century England was pretty wrought up over the threat of hellfire and brimstone, but watching characters fret about whether or not they’re among the elect can wear after a while. One way around this is to have your main characters be a bit out of the mainstream of their culture. Not that they should think there’s something wrong with their culture’s obsessions. If they think about it at all, they should feel that the problem is with them.

Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall contains plenty of relics and references to hellfire. But her Thomas Cromwell, through whose eyes we see the entire story, is so damaged by his own past and so full of ambition that he doesn’t have the leisure to dread damnation. When he attacks the Catholic Church, it’s not to save souls. It’s to move the fortune under its care to the coffers of Henry VIII.

Remember, too, that you can use the blind spots and obsessions to recreate more than history. They also define eras from the recent past. One reason Lauren Groff’s Arcadia is such a pleasure to read is that her characters recreate the idealistic, heady mindset of the back to the land communal movement of the early seventies. No personal possessions, a vegan lifestyle, open marriages, communal leadership – what could go wrong? Groff makes it real with hungry children and third world sanitation arrangements.

So how do you uncover the tacit assumptions and outright obsessions of the era you’re writing about? Read bad books. Great books are timeless, appealing to the underlying humanity of every era. Mediocre books – forgotten theological tracts, hack novels, uninspired plays — publish because they speak to their age. They reflect the sorts of things ordinary people cared most – and least – about. The best mediocre books are the ones that were widely popular when they were first published and have now been forgotten – Bulwer-Lytton is a wonderful window into the thinking of the Victorian age. And thanks to the miracle of the internet, a lot of these books are now at your fingertips, often for free.

One final warning – our ancestors were not stupid. The obsessions and blind spots that define an era were held by intelligent, sensitive people. So treat your characters with respect, even when they’re doing things that make your readers wonder, “What were they thinking?” Remember, in just a few years, people will be asking the same question about us.

Your turn. What are you thinking?

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    In light of the recent Paula Deen scandal and Trayvon Martin’s death, both raising issues of racism in America, my new novel The Sanctum, seems rather timely. (To be released 9/13).

    History plays a great part in my work. I believe you must be true to real events. When I was a little girl my father taught me respect for all people. He said we were related to the great Martin Luther King since after all, my maiden name is King. I soon realized it wasn’t true. Later, I discovered blatant prejudice had incubated for decades in other branches of my family. My southern grandparents believed wholeheartedly in segregation.

    For over a decade I lived northwest of Greensboro, NC. This area is historically saturated with horse and tobacco farms, which today still dot the landscape. By chance I discovered James W. Cole (1924-1967) was ordained into the ministry in Summerfield at the Wayside Baptist Church in 1958. He toured as a tent evangelist and broadcast a Sunday morning radio program, becoming an active member of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and eventually the Grand Dragon of North and South Carolina. The man intrigued and appalled me, and since the first part of the book takes place in Summerfield during that time period, I wrote him into the story.

    The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is located in the recently restored Woolworth’s building in downtown Greensboro, a Woolworth’s that also found its way into my story. As I further studied the Civil Rights Movement, I thought of it in terms of rights for all people. My great grandmother was a full-blooded Cherokee, according to my father, our family’s historian. So I then researched the Trail of Tears.

    My point is, when the history you write about relates in part or in whole to your own history, it matters more. Research matters more. And so do the blind spots.

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    • says

      I suspect that one reason sites like Ancestry.com is that they let you see the people behind your own history as people. Learning that your great-grandmother shared a house with eleven siblings, for instance, can bring your own story to life.

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  2. says

    Soooo interesting! I love this way of making your fiction feel more authentic. I think that this applies to more than historical fiction, too. If you’re writing a fantasy novel, add these in to make it feel more real.

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    • says

      Science fiction, as well. One reason I enjoy the work of C. J. Cherryh is that she gets into the heads of very non-human characters, including methane-breathing snake-starfish with seven brains.

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  3. says

    In my first novel, I deal with the issues of spousal abuse. Now, we ask women why they stay, but 125 years ago, unless she had money hidden away, a woman was nothing but what her husband said she was. A woman with children had almost no choice but to stay, as she had no protection unless a male relative would take her in. Divorce was almost unheard of, so for a character to escape or divorce, the writer had better know his or her legal and social history.
    And laws differed greatly from the US and England, as well, so it’s important to know if the Duchess of Somethingshire could disappear with 500 Pounds and hop a ship to New York.

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  4. Kathy Daché says

    I love this! Blind spots are so quirky and so revealing! They are the trinkets that I look for at yard sales that I did not know I wanted.
    I also appreciate your reminder that people from the past were not stupid. It’s easy to feel superior when looking at their funny ways..
    Thanks for this post!

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  5. says

    I find that some historical novelists are so anxious to get the history “right” that they focus there at the expense of characters we can relate to and a story that’s not simply history retold.

    That said, I love what you’re recommending here. History can be a superb lead to what both drives historical characters in ways we can understand and simultaneously makes them utterly of their times.

    Terrific post, Dave. Very useful.

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  6. says

    One of the beauties of capturing an era through its blind spots is that, if you do it right, it’s almost subliminal. Readers aren’t going to analyze a work to understand the underlying motivations of the characters. They’ll just feel they’re in a different place.

    It’s magic when you get it right.

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  7. says

    Incidentally, props to Therese for coming up with the art on this entry. She did a beautiful job melding the Madonna and Jean Harlow.

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  8. says

    Thank you, Dave! As an author of historical fiction, I found your post most interesting. I loved your points about shedding light on bygone eras through using related blind spots and reading bad books. I had not thought of it quite that way.

    Creating characters that feel of their time but that can also be understood by today’s reader can be a challenge. I suppose the good news in all of this is that some things about human beings seem to remain fairly static. Basic views of right and wrong, human emotions and their motivations, basic human characteristics and traits – none of these seem to really have changed all that much since the beginning of time. I think it is these never changing human traits that allow our readers to relate to our characters. Your points about historical blind spots makes the characters feel of their time. As pointed out, the secret to good historical fiction is in the balancing of the two.

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  9. Kathleen Young Rybarczyk says

    One of the joys (and headaches) of creating my alternate history universe was changing the world religions and some of the reasons for pivotal events occurring. It made for a series of complicated choices that necessitated writing and entire back history for a story that took place in modern day. Change one thing and the whole world changes!

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    • says

      Hey, Kathleen.

      Alternate history stories are an article in themselves — one I may write someday, since I love them. But if you can capture not only a historical point if view but a historical point of view as it would have been if, for instance, Caesar hadn’t been assassinated, you’re really putting your imagination to use.

      Dave

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  10. says

    Dave, this post has had me thinking this week, as I realize that I’d done exactly what your article suggests — yet kept fighting my own instinct, since I kept thinking a reader might argue, “But no one did that in that time period.”

    I am writing about a character along the border counties in Ireland during the end of the Troubles. I specifically didn’t want to write about an IRA or UVF; my goal wasn’t to take sides and demonize, but to write one experience of how civilians experience war and terrorism (the storyline crosses into more universal experience, beyond Ireland’s borders). As I’d read other writers specifically taking on the known perspectives of the conflict, I wondered if someone would question my character, who comes at it from a different angle. Yet my story is more about the individual choices my character made than an overall statement on that time in history.

    Your article reminds me that the key is to use research to anchor the story in accurate history, and then occupy my own character fully so that his unique perspective is strong. Thanks, because your message puts me in the right direction as I move forward with current revisions.

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