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Friday, September 3, 2010

Writing Historical Fiction, part 1 Immersion

One of the readers of this blog gave me the idea to write about "historical and social authenticity."  I thought I'd expand that thought and write specifically about producing historical fiction.  This topic will cover the suggested area well and give it an overall writing focus. do you start writing a historical fiction work?  The answer is easy--immersion.  The solution is hard.  Immersion in history and culture is hard and a lot of work.  I have written three published historical fiction novels and three published science fiction novels  The historical areas I immersed myself in was: ancient Greece in 400 to 399 BC, the Levant in 6 BC to AD 35, Tunisia in AD 1926 and Egypt in 1440 to 1340 BC, and AD 7,265 Anglo-Saxon culture. 

So, how do you do it?  How do you immerse yourself in an ancient or a future culture?  You immerse yourself in the same way you learn about a modern culture.  If you can go to the area of study, that is a great step, but not as effective as you think.  How can you go to ancient Greece or ancient Egypt?  You can't.  You can look at what those areas are like today, but they are only a shadow of the past.  Reading, research, and study is your best friend in immersing yourself in a time, place, and culture.  I start by reading primary and secondary source documents.  Primary documents are those from eye witnesses of the period in question.  Secondary documents are reports related by eye witnesses to others.  Only after I run out of primary and secondary source documents do I move to tertiary documents.  Tertiary documents are those that are not primary or secondary.  I try to use the earliest tertiary documents possible.  In studying about ancient Greece, there are many great source documents.  It is easy to, first of all, familiarize yourself with the period from the eyes of those who lived in it and, second of all, to begin to get a feel for the people and their thinking.  That is the ultimate point, you have to begin to experience life like the people of the times.  You have to begin to understand: what they ate. How they ate. How they worked.  How they worshipped.  How they entertained.  How they slept.  How they married.  How they played.  What did their world sound like?  What did it smell like?  What were their homes like?  What were their markets like...?  Think about all the pieces of your life today and do not assume that anything from any other period is like that at all.  You can't extrapolate.  You can't interpolate.  You must accept the world you are studying in the past as it is and not how you think it might be.  You should attempt to wipe out every idea you have about those people in the past and your experience of life today.  If you don't, you will not be able to realize their culture and times and transfer them to paper.

I'll give you a modern example of immersion.  I want to write a novel about Japan in AD 1000, the period of Genji.  This has been the most difficult immersion I have attempted.  The language is foreign to me.  The culture is significantly different than I am used to.  I have been working and studying this for about 5 years.  I started by reading every primary and secondary source from the time.  I eat Japanese food.  I plan to visit Japan.  I have visited Korea and done extensive study of China and Japan.  I have written some on ancient China--ancient China is easy compared to AD 1000 Japan.  I am working right now on the modern Japanese culture to begin to understand ancient Japan.  I'm working backwards because of the paucity of primary and secondary sources.  This isn't the best method, but it is a method.  I will eventually write this novel, but only after I can understand the thinking and culture of the people of the time.  So...immersion is the first step.  I'll explain more tomorrow. 

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