Author of Thistle & Flame
Insatiable Reads book tour
Blog post for 5/22/2013
Subject: School lesson or just for fun? The History part of historical fiction
Just to go ahead and date myself, I’m thirty years old. When I was growing up, in the 1980s, big, over-blown historical epic movies were in a little bit of a lull. The big extravaganzas of the early days of 35mm film were no longer being done, not really, because why would a studio choose to make “Ben Hur” or “Cleopatra”? Why spend all that money to make “The Ten Commandments” when the order of the day, were smaller stories? First Blood, Sixteen Candles, The Blue Lagoon, An Officer and a Gentlemen (be still my beating heart), Dirty Dancing, they were all incredible movies, some of them even immortal, but they were also small. Two characters were important, three or four maybe, and that was all she wrote.
And then something came along that changed the way my brain saw the world. That sounds dramatic, but again, I’m a writer. It was 1987, and I was about to turn six. Even at that age, my mom and dad took me to movies fairly regularly, but they had different “jobs”. Mom took me to kid movies, dad to ‘cool’ movies. And, don’t worry, I was civilized well. I didn’t talk, didn’t cry, and didn’t text during the film. They almost never took me to the same movie. Except this one.
I’ll give you a hint – there is the nastiest pair of villains I’d ever seen. One of them had six fingers. There was a giant, a pirate, a crafty little man who at the time I couldn’t quite figure out, and then there was the one I fell in love with: a Spanish swordsman with mesmerizing eyes, a beautiful head of feathered hair, and who wanted nothing more in the world than to kill one of the villains.
The Princess Bride is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the best historical romances ever made. The book, written in the 1970s by the brilliant William Goldman (er…I mean S. Morgenstern) is wonderful, and now that I’ve got a kid, I read it to him when he’s sick. That’s just the way things should be. But the movie entranced me. From the opening line, I was stuck. I didn’t move, didn’t titter, and didn’t stir, for the entire ninety-eight minutes it played. And even more shocking, neither did either of my parents.
At almost-six, I didn’t really understand what it was about the movie that did all those things to my pulse, except that it was really cool, but the one thing I did notice is that at the end of it, my parents were holding hands. That might seem normal for a lot of people, but it most certainly was not for mine. Something about Westley and Buttercup and Inigo and Fezzik had them entranced too, I realized.
Skip forward a few years. A few great historical romances had come and gone, but nothing that did quite the same thing. Sure, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992, with Keanu) was naughty and fun, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner, also 1992) was a good romp, and Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights was hilarious and surprisingly sweet, but nothing and I mean nothing, prepared me for Braveheart.
What can I say? I’m Scottish by heritage, though an American by birth, so I immediately had long-buried nationalist pangs when I saw the previews. And then when it finally came out, again with both parents along for the ride, we were there opening day. And that movie was BIG. Huge battles, huge heartbreak, Mel Gibson in a kilt, what could be better?
“That’s not really what happened,” my dad said. “They didn’t wear kilts. Not until much later. Tartan and boots, sure, but kilts, no. And William Wallace didn’t do any of that. And Robert the Bruce wasn’t anything like that.”
But – it was right there! Right in front of us, the story played out. It most certainly did happen on the screen. And it was exciting, thrilling, and he fought a war for love!
That’s when I realized that one of the most profound balancing acts in entertainment takes place in historical fiction, no matter the medium. There are such delicate threads that all need attention, or you’re going to end up with a whole lot of grumbling reviews. On the one hand you’ve got audience expectations – the readers or the viewers want a fun story, they want excitement and romance. But they also want historical accuracy. They want to know what life was really like in the time your book takes place. With Thistle and Flame, I’ve tried to capture the feel of eighteenth-century life in Scotland in two places – the rural (and very fictional) Fort Mary as well as cosmopolitan Edinburgh. Historical romance readers are sophisticated, they know what they love in a story.
As I began the book, I’d outlined a story that I thought would be a fun ride, and started to sketch out my characters. Almost immediately, I came to the first of many (many, many…) crossroads. I remembered what my dad said in the halcyon days of 1996.
“They didn’t wear kilts.”
But you know, there’s another part of all this that the best historical fiction keeps in mind, that I alluded to earlier. Reader expectations. They’re important in any genre, and important when you’re writing for an audience, which all writers do to some extent or another. And, in a book about Scotland, people expect kilts. If you write about King Arthur, they expect knights and round tables, and with Scotland, it’s kilts.
And really, is that so bad? Historical fiction is, to me, and to a lot of other writers and readers, about the flavor of a time. The feeling of a place that gives a story some gravity, some oomph, that makes it a little more real. I remembered, as I was writing, that stir that I felt in my red-headed soul when I saw Braveheart, even though I knew it wasn’t a history lesson – it was a legend.
When I started Thistle and Flame, it was a very different book. It was a little dour, a little cynical, and a little too realistic. I got about three quarters of the way through, read it back and… absolutely hated it. I think that looking back, it wasn’t bad, not really. But it wasn’t the book I wanted to write. And so, I pretty much scrapped the whole thing. When you’re working on a deadline, and that deadline is breathing down your neck, tossing a whole book’s worth of text in the trashcan is the last thing you want to do in the world. But there was something that just wasn’t right. I read through the whole thing again, trying to figure out what it was that had me so irritated.
Finally, on the third go-around, I thumped myself in the forehead.
Accuracy. It was just way, way, way too real. Too dire, too grimy, and that’s not at all what I wanted. Confession time: I’m a trained historian. That can be a really, really good thing! I mean, whereas other writers would have to spend a great deal of time researching their time period and so on, I already did that. It took me seven years, but I already did that. On the other hand, it’s very difficult to separate “real” from actual reality.
Scotland in the 1740s was a very difficult place to live. Families were torn apart, people were hurt and worse, and on and on. That’s important to know about – important to remember – but that’s not what I want to read when I pick up a romance. Now, admittedly, there are still some shreds of that left in the book, but I think they’re used to good effect. And anyway, the villain really gets it in the end, so it all works out.
But then, there we are. The book is finished, people seem to be enjoying it, and so I think I made the right choice. Did “it really happen that way”? Well, no. Not all of it.
First of all, they wear kilts!
-Anya Karin is a long-time writer of romance, historical romance and historical fiction, who is part of the Insatiable Reads book tour, featuring fifteen other great authors. If you’d like to check out Anya’s work, head on over to http://www.amazon.com/Thistle-Flame-Highland-Historical-ebook/dp/B00BQI8VUQ and grab a copy. She thanks Nikki for the chance to guest on this fantastic blog, and hopes you all have a wonderful, and plaid-filled weekend!
GIVEAWAY: Anya is graciously giving away 5 e-copies to winners here! Simply comment to enter! Giveaway open until 3/29/13 with winners announced shortly after