Monday, August 17, 2009

Writing the Historical: Real vs. Imagined

Here's a multiple choice question for you.

Let's say you want to write a story set in an English village during World War II. This time period is recent enough that many still remember it. Do you:

a) Choose a village that is already on the map, research it, and hope you don't get anything wrong

b) Make up a village name and use a conglomerate of villages to "build" your own town

c) Say the heck with it and just set it in London

What I'm getting at here is a question that has been a part of the historical fiction writing world for a long time. If you're writing a historical, just how accurate do you need to be? There are some purists who refuse to use made-up places, insisting that if it's "historical" than that place really needs to exist.

The other side of the coin gives you more leeway. To use our example above, using a made-up village enables us to be completely free of error - i.e. you're not going to have anyone calling you up and saying, "But the village bakery isn't on that street!" or what-have-you.

This is a bit different when you get to bigger locales, however. Using major cities as locations is much easier. You have access to a lot more research, and though chances for errors are still possible, they're not as easy to make.

But...if you're writing a historical, are you cheating the reader by setting it in a fictional place?

What do you think?

6 comments:

Rene said...

I love creating my own locales. Like you said, you don't have someone coming up to you and saying that you got it wrong. I do think you have to work to make it authentic, but it can be done. I remember creating a fictional village in pre-Regency England. I didn't base it on any specific place but I went through architecture books and books about English towns to create it.

Brandywine said...

I think making up your own town would provide a lot more freedom to create a story without worrying about being perfect in every detail of the town. I like books I read to be historically accurate but it is, after all, fiction. I do like to know upfront if a locale is fictional, so I won't go looking for it on a map :)

Tess said...

It all depends on the setting. I do make up houses for my families to live in, but have a really hard time making up entire villages, though it would be so much easier in many ways.

That said, as long as you've done your research, I certainly don't think you're cheating your reader by making up a fictional village/town. A city might be going a bit too far, though :)

Donna M. Kohlstrom said...

Thank you for stopping by my blog and for the congrats on my anniversary!

Don't let disappointments and rejections get you down. There's always a lesson to be learned from them and turn them into positive motivation to write more.

Look forward to getting to know you better and seeing your novel on the Best Sellers List!

I don't do historical novels but appreciate the detail and research that goes into them. As long as you use the correct historical events, clothes, etc. of the time then your fiction story can go anywhere you want it to.

Amy De Trempe said...

It all depends. If I have my characters spending a lot of time in the village/town, it will be a fictional place. If they live on an estate outside of the town/village, I may use a real one just so readers have an idea of location.

prashant said...

It all depends on the setting. I do make up houses for my families to live in, but have a really hard time making up entire villages, though it would be so much easier in many ways.
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