Thursday, January 21, 2010

Making the Past Understandable

By Author Tricia Goyer

As a writer of historical fiction, I like to consider myself a translator of sorts. It's my job to take the events of the past and make them understandable to today's reader. No ... more than that ... to make history come alive and make the past an enjoyable place to visit.

As a translator I must balance the core values and beliefs of a people in the past with the felt needs of today's reader.

If you write historical fiction you too are a translator. The question is ... how much will you compromise the past to connect today?

The compromise doesn't mean changing the facts, but rather it means making sure our writing style and delivery appeals to today's reader.

Of course, we must also look at our "facts" and consider them from two different points of view.

For example, consider the Communists and Nazi regimes. The readers today, who have had even a basic history education, understand these two systems. Yet, how we see both is very different than someone who lived in countries influenced by both.

In my Spanish Civil War books I balanced the way communism was viewed by an unemployed American in 1936 with how readers look at it today. To a man in 1936, communism looked ideal. It gave a voice to common man and provided food and honor to men out of work. Still, I also created scenes that showed some of its many weaknesses—as known by today’s reader.

Each author must come to his/her own resolution—"How much will I compromise to make my book interesting and exciting to today’s reader?" Will you change...

  • Word choices?
  • Patterns of speech?
  • Lengthy descriptions?
  • Pace?
    Personally, my resolution is to bring history to life. To make it as true-to-life as possible … but to write it in a way that will interest today’s reader. I flavor my dialogue in a way that will not slow the story or confuse the reader.  I write in dramatic scenes and weave description into the flow.

    Yet because I’m representing previous generations, I am also diligent in my research. I put in the extra time it takes to “get it right."

      In our market it's clear that the favored writing style of today’s reader mimics television/movies. Persia Woolley, author of How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction says:

      "Television has created a visually oriented society, used to seeing things happen in the comfort of their own living rooms. The result is that those who still read are always, at least subconsciously, looking for a physical description of a person and place so they can see it in their minds’ eyes. Reading a book is such an internal process, it helps to give your audience a means of visualizing your characters and locations.” p. 102

      That makes complete sense to me ... as a writer and a reader. Because we live in a different society than 100 or even 50 years ago, our books should look different too.

      It's compromise, yes. We write about history, far different than historical books are written. But writing words to connect with a visually oriented society is also a way to connect the past with today's reader. Have at it, translator!

      Tricia Goyer

      Check out her WWII Liberator series


      1. This is interesting; I'd not thought quite in these terms. Thanks for giving me something to think about!

      2. Interesting post, Tricia. Yes, as a historical fiction author there is always that tension of portraying history accurately without offending modern day sensibilities and/or finding just the right phrase to communicate a past era to a 21st century reader. Wonderful food for thought.


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