Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reviews, choices, and expectations

I just received a lovely review from the Historical Novel Society. It caused me to reflect on the points reviewers made, what gave them pause, what were some common themes, and whether the points I hoped to convey got across.

So far, with only one exception, the reviewers liked my characters, found them endearing, vivid, and likeable (links to reviews at end of article). Since characters are paramount for me as a reader, I focused on making my characters real, and I’m thrilled that I have succeeded in this regard.

This Time is a mash-up of historical fiction and science fiction with a time travel twist. My main character was Richard III, who I brought into the twenty-first century seconds before he was about to be slain in battle. Bringing this medieval monarch over 500 years into the future gave me opportunities and choices in how I would handle his adjustment to modern technology and culture. Early on, I decided that the more interesting (to me) aspect to explore would be his cultural and emotional reaction and adaptation. I felt I should downplay the “wow--you can do that” aspect of the modern world, dealing with most of it, such as things like TV, telephone, and computers in the early chapters, and allowing the reader to imagine how Richard reacted to other technological advances.

Here, reviewers differed on whether I covered this aspect in too much, not enough, or the right level of detail. Interestingly, there seems to have been an even split among those who mentioned this angle. So what am I left to conclude? I think this has to do more with what the readers wanted or expected, rather than whether the book correctly balanced this aspect. Since I made the final editing decisions, I believed I wrote the right amount about Richard’s fish-out-of-water experiences. Some reviewers disagreed--my balance wasn’t right for them.

Fortunately, there was no such disagreement on the historical or emotional elements. For me, that was more important to the story I wanted to tell. As a result, I continue to feel that I met the expectations that I had set by my choice of story and by labeling it a Historical Fiction with Sci-fi elements.

Recently, several blogs have discussed whether writers of historical fiction should maintain historical accuracy where it is known. Some have argued that fiction is fiction and that gives us license to “adapt” the history to fit the story. I disagree. If the author wants to tell a story where someone dies at a different time from when they actually did, for example, then I don’t think it should be called historical because the historical label sets the reader’s expectations that it will at least adhere to the major points of known history. I do think it’s okay to speculate on the unknown such as where those outcomes were in doubt.

So, when I read a book that is supposed to be historical fiction, I expect the history to be accurate within the limits of what is currently known. I also expect most of the characters to conform to the attitudes of their culture except where the character is created as a cultural rebel, or the historical figure is known for writings and actions that did not conform.


Historical Novel Review (Nov 2009)
That’s All She Read
Writer’s Daily Grind
Medieval Woman
The Boogle

(more reviews at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble)

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