I get asked to beta-read a lot of historical fiction. It allows me to apply some of the many years of reading for my qualifying exams to good use and sharing scholarly articles about medieval Europe helps writers add depth and detail to their settings and storylines.
One of Writer’s Digest‘s recurring guest blogger features this month was an interview with Irene Goodman, literary agent, about her suggestions to authors of historical fiction. She provides a thoughtful sixteen point post of “truths” about this semi-fictional genre.
I can’t say that, as either a reader or an historian of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, I entirely agree — and I wonder how much of that disconnect promotes the vast increase in the popularity of self-published books over the past decade.
As a beta-reader, I focus my feedback not only on pointing out factual problems, but also on suggestions as to how a writer can improve and develop those aspects of their novel that will make them most proud to share it with the world. I’ve decided to include links to Goodman’s post as a counterpoint to my own self-actualization centred responses moving forward.
It is especially point #6 — The more famous, the better — that merits revisiting.
All too often I find myself reading detailed accounts of very famous historical figures that are just wrong. The more famous the story you’ve chosen to retell, the more baggage your readers bring to the tale, and the more assiduous need be your research. Robert Harris was able to spend a lot of money researching and traveling to prepare for his award-winning Cicero trilogy.
Instead, I encourage novelists to explore the lives and careers, literary production, and gossip of lesser-known people from the past. Their more sparsely documented lives offer even more opportunities for creative reinterpretation. The unfamous can help you develop both complex characters and vibrant, evocative worlds without sending your readers off to Wikipedia to fact check every little detail.
You can read Irene Goodman’s original post here.