Thursday, November 14, 2013

History is My Plaything by Guest Author Maia Chance

How do writers walk the line between accuracy and entertainment? Today my guest author Maia Chance offers her approach to this challenge with a special focus on historical fiction. Welcome, Maia!  ~ Sheila

History is My Plaything

by Maia Chance

I’m in a bind: I respect the notion of History.  However, I read and write historical genre fiction.  When readers pick up a cozy mystery, they aren’t looking for a chalk-dry academic lecture.  What exactly is my responsibility, as a writer of stuff-that’s-utterly-fabricated, to dignified History?  Can I make my version of, say, the nineteenth century, look like the anachronistic faux-land of Disney films?  Or should I attempt to replicate, like a lithograph, the staid language of Nathaniel Hawthorne?

Maybe neither.  Literature scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes, “Writers present models of reality rather than a description of it” (Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self).  This means, among other things, that writers of fiction don’t construct facsimiles, static artifacts, of History.  Instead, writers write worlds as they might’ve been.

But there’s a wrinkle: I can’t have my 1867 hero say “Google,” and my heroine can’t wear Pumas.  Suspension of disbelief depends upon a flavor of historical authenticity.  So, how do we add historical flavor without the History textbook calories?  Here’s my two-pronged method:

Use Slang.  Period slang is saturated with flavor, without resorting to any exposition.  Pure gold.  Read writing from (not about—from) your time period, and harvest the slang.

Paint a Backdrop of Things, not Events.  Okay, I watch Downton Abbey.  But truthfully, the way every last major historical event smacks that family over the head does some damage to my suspension of disbelief.  People live their day-to-day lives abutting detailed, tangible things; putting those things into your writing will make your historical setting seem, likewise, detailed and tangible. 

 Period slang (zowie, fiddlesticks, gongoozler, humbug) and period objects (silverware, castles, Model Ts, and dentures) are my toys.  When texts become models of reality, things thaw out.  We’re free to start playing.

Maia Chance is hard at work on her upcoming historical mystery series, Fairy Tale Fatal, the first book of which, Snow White Red-Handed, will be published by Berkley Prime Crime in Fall 2014.  She is a Candidate for the PhD in English Literature at the University of Washington in Seattle, which means that she is also hard at work on ... another historical mystery series, set in Prohibition-era New York.

Let’s be friends on Goodreads ~ Check out my website


  1. First, Snow White Red-Handed? Just on the basis of the title, that's one I'd want to check out. Which historical period, though? I can think of a few where such a title might belong. (Mystery featuring the Brother Grimm, perhaps?)
    Second, I'm so glad you made that point about Downton Abbey. It's one reason I have never been able to get into it, while its (now decades-old) predecessor Upstairs Downstairs, which involved the stuff of daily life, seemed to make more sense.
    And third, thank you for making the point about language and artifacts. I think it's also more interesting to read about people's daily lives than how they thought about what we now know to be major historical events that might barely have registered for them.
    One question I have, though, is how one balances the need to have one's sympathetic characters appeal to modern readers with the need to have them be convincingly people of their time. I recall reading a historical novel set in the Elizabethan period in which a minor British nobleman (Our Hero), in desperate need of an heir, nonetheless announced enthusiastically that he was as overjoyed at the news that his first child was a daughter as he would have been to have a son. Um, no. But of course, it would have taken some fancy footwork to give him a more realistic reaction without annoying at least some readers. (And speaking of historical issues, the book was, as I recall, published during second-wave feminism, during which readers would have been paying attention to the characters' attitudes towards women.)
    Wonderful post!

    1. Thanks, Linda. Snow White Red-Handed is set in 1867, in the Black Forest, but the protagonists are American women. After the time of the Grimms, but very much involving their legacy. Interesting question about creating sympathetic characters. I tend to create female protagonists who are in difficult financial circumstances, which I believe makes bold behavior more believable than, say, a Duchess who becomes a sleuth. Desperation, and other powerful emotions, are relatable (although I would never venture to say that there is some sort of transcendent "human nature" that persists through history). No matter what we contemporary writers do, our characters would doubtless be appallingly inaccurate to a period reader. I'd probably summarize by saying that, like the slang issue, fiction writers need to create that "flavor" of history.

  2. Love this! :-) I find historical researched books so very interesting, especially when I know the author has done their homework! Loved reading this and learning more about your work.

    1. Thanks, Mystic Mom. The "homework" turns out to be inspiration, too!

    2. Thanks. Historical "homework" more often than not turns into creative inspiration for me.