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.
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.