History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

26 August 2013

The Tenth Muse and Framing Historical Fiction

I just got back from a fun and thought provoking few days at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (there are my daughter Mélanie and I above at the Member Lounge). Along with well-loved plays such as an enchanting A Midsummer Night's Dream and a complex, touching, brilliant My Fair Lady, we saw a couple of very intriguing world premieres, Liquid Plain and The Tenth Muse. Both were historical, Liquid Plain about African Americans who had escaped slavery in the 1790s, The Tenth Muse about nuns in 18th century Mexico.  Both plays were strong and intriguing and provided a great deal of conversational fodder for my friend and fellow writer Penelope Williamson and me over lattes and cosmopolitans.

In particular, The Tenth Muse got me thinking about how we frame historical fiction. The play is inspired by the story of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, famed for her writing and intellectual pursuit. But instead of dramatizing Sor Juana's story directly, playwright Tanya Saracho sets her play twenty years after Juana died of the plague (shortly after she fell out of favor with the church). Juana's niece Sor Isabel is an important character, but the play centers around three young women who come to the convent with their own dilemmas and are caught up in Sor Juana's legacy.

As historical novelists, we have a number of choices to make in dramatizing historical events. We have to choose where to stop and start our stories (which sometimes can mean looking back at pivotal events as in this play). And we have to choose whose eyes through which to tell the story. Our own Juliet Grey brilliantly dramatized Marie Antoinette's life with Marie Antoinette as the central character. Other writers tell the story of real historical figure through the eyes of a fictional character - often a friend, lady-in-waiting, valet, or maid. Still others weave together real and fictional events and characters, so that fictional central characters interact with real historical figures, and the plot combines real and fictional events. Lauren and I both fall in this category.

For a writer, there are advantages and disadvantages to both types of story. There's an immediacy to telling a story as it unfolds, through the eyes of the central character. One person I talked to very much enjoyed The Tenth Muse but also said she would have liked to see Juana's story dramatized. On the other hand, while I love writing about real events and people, I also enjoy the freedom of being able to shape the story of my central characters and develop their personalities. This also gives the author more latitude in how the story ends. Without huge spoilers, I will say that The Tenth Muse ends on a more hopeful note than probably would have been possible in dramatizing Sor Juana's life.

Do you have a preference in how the historical fiction you read is framed? What are some of your favorite examples? Writers, how do you approach framing historical events?

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Blogger Pamela Sherwood said...

Tracy, I think some brilliant novels have been written using all the approaches you describe, though the last one--mingling original characters with historical figures--might be the most often utilized. Winston Graham's Poldark Saga and Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles both have their heroes getting caught up epic historical events and possibly even influencing the outcome. (This is also true of Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series.) On the other hand, one of my favorite historical novels ever is Grace Ingram's Red Adam's Lady which deals with the 1173 uprising of the Young King against his father Henry II of England, entirely from the POV of original characters, Adam de Lorismond and his reluctant bride, Julitta. And Elizabeth Chadwick, whose books I love, wrote a series of books about William the Marshal and his family, in which the cast is predominantly composed of historical personages.

As a reader, I can enjoy all three methods, though as a writer, I kind of prefer the freedom of having original central characters. The fates of historical figures have already been determined, and unless you take an alternate universe tack, you're bound to comply with what you know happened to those people, between their birth and death dates. You can't make their lives less tragic or give them a happy ending if history didn't supply one!

6:51 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful examples, Pamela! Dorothy Dunnett and Bernard Cornwell in particular interweave real and historical characters and events so seamlessly that one wonders how history could have unfolded without Francis Crawford or Richard Sharpe.

As I mentioned I too really prefer the freedom of being able to give story the ending I choose, though I certainly love a number of novels that center round real historical figures.

1:36 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I tend to prefer the main characters to be fictional, but I've certainly enjoyed many a Penman book where the main characters were real (reading the author’s note and finding out the only characters who got happy endings are the fictional ones is usually traumatic though).

7:58 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

The summer I was an apprentice at the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival they did Richard III and a bunch of us were reading Penman's Sunne In Splendour backstage. Great book, but definitely traumatic. She actually did have a fairly major fictional character who was a friend of Anne Neville's - I can't remember if that character got a happy ending.

2:00 PM  

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