Rules to Rewrite History By
Last week I was lucky enough to guest post on the terrific writing blog WriterUnboxed, and decided to throw together a short list of the things I’ve learned about writing historical fiction over the last decade. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve gotten a lot of great responses, and so thought I’d repost it here for general consumption:
10 Rules for Rewriting History
A decade into writing historical fiction, I’ve learned some interesting things—not the least of which is that I happen to love writing historical fiction. As someone who’d always struggled in history class (all those names and dates to memorize) I’d never imagined that my first novel would be HF. I’d imagined instead a more conventional debut: contemporary. Semi-autobiographical. Coming-of-age-centered.
Fast-forward to 1999, when I was well into said s.a.c.o.a. debut and finding it flimsy and (frankly) not all that interesting. On a visit to the Guggenheim, I was drawn to a wistful self-portrait by an artist named Pan Yuliang. I loved the work. But it was the story of the artist–a Chinese former prostitute and concubine—that really blew me away. My husband suggested I make this my first novel. I told him he was crazy. A few weeks later, though, there I was, signing up for classes in Chinese history and oil painting and hesitantly attempting a prologue.
So what changed my mind? Well, history, for one thing. As study material it’s a drag, but as novel fodder it’s fascinating. It also gives my narratives a heft and a ballast that has been lacking in my more contemporary attempts. Maybe best of all, it’s an ideal (if dangerously seductive) antidote to writers’ block: when the words don’t come, you can always read or take some notes and still feel that you are moving forward. Though as I’ve learned, the line between “research” and “procrastination” can be dangerously blurry.
Still, I’ve now published two novels of historical fiction, and am just starting on my third. Here are some “rules of thumb” that have helped me in the process:
1. History rides shotgun. Remember that what you’re writing is a novel—not a history book. This means history should be used only to heighten and deepen your narrative, and not the other way around. Be careful not to get hijacked by some fascinating event that doesn’t fit naturally into your storyline, because no matter how hard you try—or how many pages you write (in my case, sometimes, hundreds—with Painter I spent months on historical tangents that ultimately proved irrelevant) it simply won’t work in the end. If it doesn’t relate to your plot, it shouldn’t be in there.
2. Write right away—or at least, feel like you could if you had to. Many historical novelists put off writing until they feel that they’ve “researched enough.” If your story is strong enough, though, you should be able to write it (or much of it) immediately–albeit with lots of blanks and “[TK]s” and what I like to call “tent stakes.” For instance: in my most recent novel, The Gods of Heavenly Punishment, I have a scene where a bomber pilot takes off from an aircraft carrier for the first time. Since I had no idea how to fly a B-25, I initially used terms like “gas pedal [TK]” and “steering stick [TK]” as temporary placeholders. Sure, my dad–a Navy pilot in the 1950’s–laughed his ass off over that draft. But I found was able to nail all the important things—how my pilot felt when the flag fell, his anxious banter with his co-pilot, his fears about flying into a foreign country—without worrying about the technology.
3. Research like hell. That said, you do have to research—and the more you do the more authentic your book will feel. I probably read about twenty books for each novel, and countless online pages and papers. Organizing all that info can be tricky, but I’ve found one technique that works well: index carding. After I read and highlight my factoids I type them up as notes, which I then divide, cut out and glue onto index cards. These I organize by topic: a list of oil paint colors popular in the ‘20’s would go under “Painting (Craft Of),” a detail about singsong girls under “Brothel Stuff.” When I’m getting ready to write a new section, I simply take out stacks of cards from related subjects, leaf through and line them up, and figure out what I can insert where.
4. The 30 Percent Rule: It’s one of the depressing realities of researching: the vast majority of it probably won’t make your book. In my experience, between unused index cards and final-final edits I only use about 30% of what I’ve learned. Resign yourself to this likelihood. Try to think of it as paint: an artist may have dozens of hues and tones on her palette, but in the end she only uses what her painting really needs. On the bright side, just having all that info in your arsenal will probably make you feel more smart and capable and historical novelist-y. Plus, you’ll have lots of potential party-conversation topics.
5. Talk to real people. For both of my books, I’ve found that some of my most vivid information comes from people, not pages—and that interviewing and observing subjects related to your story will add real-life nuance that text alone won’t. For instance, since Pan Yuliang learned much of her craft in an atelier at the Paris Beaux Artes, I needed to know how one worked. I did do some bookish research—but what really brought it to life was observing a class at the Art Students League of New York, which is run in essentially the same fashion. Similarly, since The Gods of Heavenly Punishment is set against the Tokyo firebombing, I needed a sense of what that experience was like. A trip to Tokyo and interviews with three women who’d lived through the bombing added incredible (if horrific) depth to that scene.
6. Watch out for big-shots. One of the coolest things about HF is the writer’s omnipotence: you can put anyone/thing anywhere you want them. Don’t abuse it. Just because the Fitzgeralds were in Paris during the period about which you are writing doesn’t mean you write about them, no matter how much you loved Gatsby. If their paths and your characters’ would naturally cross, go ahead (but don’t overdo it!). If not, leave them out. Otherwise it will read like literary groupie-ism and lessen your story’s credibility. On the other hand, including relevant smaller historical details will heighten your book’s credibility. What kind of hairs were Chinese paintbrushes made with in the early part of the century? What kinds of shoes did people wear? What were the big movies everyone was going to see, and how did Chinese movie theaters differ from Western ones? One of my favorite discoveries with Painter—unearthed from a crumbling travel guide from 1932–was that Chinese commentators would simultaneously “translate” foreign films to audiences like a sportscaster would discuss a game, saying things like “Oh no! The woman is tied up on the train tracks! What is the hero going to do?” (Pure gold!)
7. Vet vernacular. One of the hardest tasks a historical writer faces is finding language that fits his time, place and characters. On the other hand, one of the surest ways to lose a reader is to have your Plymouth-bound pilgrim say “gnarly.” Ok, so most of you probably wouldn’t do that. But I’ve been surprised by how even seasoned writers can slip up, even if just subtly. Right now, for example, I’m reading a novel by a well-known author set during World War II, and the thing that’s stayed with me is that a German soldier refers to wood as “bourbon-colored.” As a bourbon lover, I appreciate the thought. But I just can’t stop wondering why a Bavarian soldier in the ‘40’s would fall back on Southern single-malt as a descriptive. In short, we are all the products of our respective eras and locales, and these things will inevitably creep into your narrative, so vet your language very carefully after you write it. Read it out loud to yourself, slowly. Have others familiar with your place/era read it too. I also suggest reading as many books written during (not just about) your time period as you can, taking note of idiom and tone. Lastly, when in doubt strip your character’s language down to its most straightforward and uninflected form.
8. Make a timeline. It may be all those history tests I failed, but one of the hardest things for me is keeping historical dates straight. Consequently, I find making timelines essential. With Painter, I superimposed four on a posterboard: one for Chinese history from 1899 to 1937, one for world history over the same period, one for art history and one for my character’s trajectory. That way, when I was writing about Pan Yuliang’s life at, say, age twenty, I could look up and quickly see what major world and domestic events (like the Treaty of Versailles and China’s May 4th Movement), and art trends (like the beginning of abstract painting) might have been in headlines and people’s discussions.
9. Check your facts. Sounds obvious, I know. But it’s incredibly important to get stuff right–with each mistake, you lose a little more of your reader’s faith. In the best cases, these readers will politely inform you of your screw-up (I recently got a helpful one-pager from a well-schooled smoker about 1940’s cigarettes, and why Winston wasn’t one of them). In the worst, they’ll gleefully point them out on Amazon or Goodreads reviews and stick you with a one-star rating. (Boo!) It’s inevitable, of course, that some mistakes will slip through the net—historical fiction is particularly vulnerable in this area. But a technique I learned in journalism can be helpful: namely, going over every single fact in your manuscript with a pencil, double-checking it, and checking it off only if it’s accurate (ideally by at least two sources). It also helps if, while writing, you insert source footnotes as you go each so you later know where you found everything. And if you’re really in uncertain territory—as I often found myself in both my novels—it’s well worth it to hire an expert to read through.
10. Free your mind (and the rest will follow). It may seem strange, but another hard part of fictionalizing history is just allowing yourself to fictionalize. In fact, the most common question I get from students and readers is just that–essentially: when is it o.k. to make sh** up? The answer varies from writer to writer, of course. But in my case it’s pretty simple: if it can’t be easily proven that something didn’t happen, you can write as though it did. For instance, when researching The Painter from Shanghai I found very little information on Pan’s romantic life in Paris. But I needed romance (and let’s face it, sex) to propel my story forward. So I invented a handsome Communist Party member—a former art classmate from Shanghai–who also happened to also be studying in France when she was. Or at least, I thought I invented him. Then the Chinese researcher I’d hired asked me curiously how I’d found out about Pan’s lover. When I told her I’d made him up, she blinked in surprise. According to a Chinese source she’d found online, Pan had had an affair with a Chinese communist and former art student—and is moreover buried with this same man in Montparnasse. Turns out, sometimes history is even stranger than fiction.