Historical Fiction, An Author's Perspective: Tapping the Inner Alchemist By Darik Brooks
What is historical fiction? Historical fiction, or HF, is the creative marriage of its two individual components, history and fiction. HF authors take an event, some characters, a setting, a theme, or all of them collectively, cut them from their original context, and create a fictional retelling of a particular known point in history. We all know from reading HF that readers process HF in a different way than they do ordinary fiction. Some elements of an HF novel may align with a given account of history, while other details clearly diverge down the path cleared by the author’s creative license. This is what I call the threshold of accuracy. Whether you enjoy reading Harry Turtledove, Philippa Gregory, or Ken Follett, each author has worked to establish his/her own threshold over time. How true a story is to its history depends on many factors. More conservative historical fiction walks a straighter line in relation to historical accounts, while liberal novelists may only borrow characters or settings or ignore conventionally accepted themes in order to tell their version of a story. Regardless, as historical fiction writers and readers, we are all essentially searching for the story beneath the story and we are willing to set aside some personal beliefs in order to enjoy a good read.
Throughout the process of writing Trinity of the Sun: Book I, I constantly challenged myself to discover my own threshold of accuracy. I had been studying the Gnostic gospels and other derivative and related works when the idea struck me. I asked myself, what would a fictional retelling of the early lives of Jesus Christ, John Baptist, and Mary Magdalene look like based on these sources, instead of the Bible? This spawned a period of intensive research resulting in numerous notes and the discovery of many new possible scenarios regarding the lives of Jesus, Mary, and John. Having blown away any likelihood for a decisive threshold of accuracy for this story, I found myself alone with a computer screen and a bucket full of creative license. I grinned ever so cynically and began to type.
Within the process of creating historical fiction, reading and researching the subject matter can take exponentially longer than writing. While initial research may occur over a period of several months to many years, it never really ends until the book goes to the publisher. At some point in the process, HF authors have to put down their favorite books and write. However, even when deeply absorbed in writing, I am constantly stopping to search for information tidbits to complete the picture, information that makes the story more real, more believable. I want the story to be tangible, so I collect and weigh multiple details and choose what works for the story I am telling. In the instance of the Trinity of the Sun series, one morsel of nonfiction led to another and before I could stop it, I saw the story emerging. I traced threads of truth through many sources, including hours of image searches, until I found every piece I needed, but I still lacked the magical formula for putting it all together. That was until my initiation into the alchemists’ club.
The mystical battery that makes all HF writers tick is that all are privy to a secret club, or cadre. Historical fiction authors are true alchemists of prose. HF authors digest literally thousands upon thousands of facts, both mundane and sublime, allow those minutia to gestate and ferment for a period of time – the span of which is dependent on the individual, and then spit out lines of fiction, magically tying together many otherwise loose ends. (I am not saying that other authors don’t do research, but rather, that HF authors’ works will always be partly judged on their relation to the history they are revisiting, and so, fidelity to some vestige of accuracy is often a factor.) The facts and details are pressed into raw grape juice and after all the ingredients are added, the components work away in the author’s mental crocks, eventually fermenting into the wine of a storyline and then, decanted into digital containers. A further analogy clearly highlighting the alchemical function of HF authorship is reflected in the way honeybees take in nectar from blossoms, store it in their bodies, and transmute that raw substance into precious honey when they return to the hive. Admittedly, not all historic fiction turns into honey, but all HF authors, regardless of their skillfulness, experience some glint of alchemy as they put words onto the page.
Improvising (not to be confused with improving) is the bottling step in this alchemical process. Somewhere in time, events occurred which led to a history that we can or have accessed. Oftentimes, these histories are dry and curtly erudite, lacking in flare, having removed some of the most human elements. Writing HF is the process of restoring some or all of those human elements, filling in between with details. Some improvising draws from existing facts, some of it doesn’t; it is really up to the particular author’s threshold and intentions. In many instances, readers already know details about the story they are reading. What the author provides is a context for those characters or events to become real. The successful HF author waves an ink-laden wand, creating voices, actions, volitions, and justifications for their characters, animating them from their previously cardboard reality to occupy space within their readers’ minds. Coupled with descriptive imagery, HF novels paint pictures of history in full color and context – a feat that simply isn’t possible within conventional history books. Since some authors improvise beyond readers’ comfortable limits, HF readers are challenged to keep their minds sharpened so they can distinguish for themselves what is reality and what is not. In Trinity of the Sun, I endeavored to include as many real-time facts as possible to stay within my threshold, while stretching the settings and characters’ roles beyond most traditionally conceived limits. I didn’t intend for the book to be a comfort read, but one that keeps readers on the edge.
Writing historical fiction is a multi-faceted enterprise. I sometimes dream of a day when I can sit and let profuse, un-researched fiction drip from my fingertips onto the page without needing to maintain the faintest modicum of honesty. Then I stop myself and wonder if I could even write pure fiction, after dabbling in HF. With no tethers to some accepted reality I could give my characters heroic names like Hathor and Bumblegrid and have whimsical settings named Xandiam, Christleford, and Wakeworthy, but can I really do that? No, not yet, I think to myself. There is something about writing historical fiction that undeniably clicks for me. Maybe it is my penchant for reading nonfiction books or, perhaps it comes from my suspended belief in history, as it is recorded by the victors. So far, I do not understand all the whys of writing historical fiction, but as I slowly become intricately familiar with the hows of the whole process, I am repeatedly awestruck by the magical transformations that occur when writing in this genre.
Darik Brooks is the author of Trinity of the Sun: Book I, the first in a series of thought-provoking novels depicting an alternative history of the formation of Christianity and its biggest players. His book is available at most retailers, including B&N and the iStore.