Friday, March 2, 2012

Guest Blogger Vishal Kale Discuss the Historical Fiction Genre

It's Friday and I gotta say that I love these guest bloggers. They have amazing thoughts and insights into all sorts of topics that are perfect for All Things Writing. Today is no exception. Vishal Kale is chatting with us about the historical fiction genre, a subject I love to read! Enjoy!






The Concept of the Historical Fiction Novel



A historical fiction novel is based on historical fact, is generally true to events, especially the major events; includes all principal characters and stays true to established history. The historical basis is on documented Autobiographies, third party accounts of visiting foreigners as well as other established historical documents. The fiction part comes in 2 forms - firstly, some characters are usually added to add substance and flow to the story and secondly, to set up the background.


The main pull of such novels is the presence of characters that a person has heard a lot of, read about in history books or on television – or simply in folklore. These are usually famous individuals, who through their deeds have garnered fame, and have  become a part of folklore or documented history. The reader has an existing association with such characters, and has a basic understanding of the story as it actually happened. For the novelist, this is a double-edged  sword – for on one hand he gets the immediate attention of the audience while having to deal with facts, their presentation and expectations from the audience on the other.


It is exceedingly important to get the facts and the overall setting right when dealing with this particular genre – especially since one segment of your readers are going to be aficionados who derive pleasure in understanding the setting of those days, the thoughts, the people, the background in the form of markets / people / dressing / societal values and norms etc. If the setting is too much at variance with the truth or even with the general level of understanding of the period in question, you run the very real risk of generating negative publicity and ridicule. Equally important is the treatment of the central characters and their development


Let us take the example of Jalal-ud-din Mohommad Akbar, the Mughal Emperor who is the subject of the novel Akbar: Ruler of the World. In Indian history, Akbar is one of only 2 emperors to win the title of “The Great”. He is regarded as a very kind, forward thinking secular individual, and has become a part of folklore with the famous stories of justice of his Prime Minister Birbal. Akbar is known as the man who united India under one yoke, instituted reforms to ensure hindu-muslim equality, a superb administrator, a genuinely nice and well-loved ruler. The portrayal of Akbar has to be inline with the above generally held views


However, when you juxtapose this view in the context of the Mughal era, with its powerful Mughal chieftains, winner takes all atmosphere, literally cut-throat environment, feudal setup where kindness can be a form of weakness you run into a problem: how can you portray the same man in these two radically different styles? For, a novel is not a history book – you have to show dialogues with friends and enemies; thoughts, actions etc are all portrayed in a story form. The character would simply not be believable portrayed as a simpleton or a “nice man” - you have to be cruel to retain your control on your enemies and friends alike as an emperor! And, if you can bridge this challenge – you have an excellent setup, for once the central character sketches are ready, you are in a position to place the supporting star-cast around them.


The Akbar in the book  is very believable especially in the context of the Mughal Era. He is tolerant, a liberal in terms of religion, far-sighted, humane, a great administrator and ruler, well loved by the people- but at the same time he is also authoritative, firm, absolutely in control, cruel at times, egocentric in some ways, indecisive in personal matters... this is not too far from our image of Akbar. Further, it helps to develop a better understanding of the man behind the Emperor. That last point is the key – reader develops a better understanding of and connection with the central character.


Then you have to understand that a famous person would very likely have a variety of achievements to his credit. In order that the pace of the novel is maintained, and reader interest does not waiver, you would have to perforce choose a storyline. In the case of an Emperor you can either document the growth his empire – or concentrate on his life, his attaining the throne, how he adjusts to the rigors of being a state head, how he firms his hold on his subjects and overcomes internal enemies, how he tackles the succession problem. Since a novel has limitations in terms of space as well as reader attention span, the presence of an objective and storyline ensures a good pace and reader interest.


In summation, it has to be kept in mind that a historical fiction novel is not a history book – it is an interpretation and presentation of history in a different way. The writer has to introduce new characters – obviously, history books are not going to record precise names of soldiers, personal attendants, words spoken etc – so a lot of fleshing out has to be done. To do that, most historical novelists try and get into the skin of the central character and into the concerned period. For example, Diana and Michael Preston – the authors of the Mughal series have not only read all available literature on the subject, but have also visited all relevant places from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Chittor in India. The effort shows in their books... as in many other historical fiction novelists!


So far, I have read 3 novels in this genre:








No 2 – Chanakya was the prime minister of the Magadha Empire of 330 BC. The point – the final point I have to make – is that you don’t have to be a ruler to be a subject of a fictional novel! All that is required is that the central character should be a well known historical figure, and the sequence of events should have a historical basis! {The “well-known” qualification is simply coz a known character will sell more copies :)! }


So, if you are interested in History, or want to understand more about that period – or, indeed – just want a good read, pick one from this genre. There will be titles available from your culture – just choose and start off! Preferable pick one from your cultural setting the first time... you will appreciate and enjoy it much, much more, as you will be able to relate to the period and the setting...



To learn more about Vishal Kale, check out his blog http://reflectionsvvk.blogspot.in/. His passions are Books, Business and Social Issues.

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this, Mary...

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  2. Very nice work, Vishal! I really enjoyed your breakdown of this genre.

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  3. History was my absolute least favorite subject in public school. But after I started reading historical novels, I found myself fascinated with the subject, and have even gone on to buy non-fiction books about eras I especially like. Historical fiction can bring it alive so much better than a high-school textbook! Thanks for the post, Vishal.

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  4. I admire writers who can as you say get the facts right. It is not my strong suit--I am a make-it-up-and-hope-it-fits type--and I think historical fiction writers are an immensely talented breed.

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    1. Good point... it takes a different breed of writer! One has to weave a story around established facts, taking care to sidestep pitfalls and controversies... while having to create a winning concept! How true... never thought of it thatway! Great Observation!

      Vishal
      (PS: Sorry for the delayed response. Careless of me, I Know...)

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  5. You know, Jenny, I agree with that. I know that I cannot get the facts right enough to write this genre, but I sure like to read it. I've been reading the Boleyn Girls series and really admire the writer for mixing history and fiction in such a soap opera way!

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  6. Nice post. You might like to consider Alison Weir's history based novels http://caroleschatter.blogspot.co.nz/2012/03/alison-weir-author.html

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    1. Sure...

      I'll take a look at the link on your blogsite

      Regards,

      Vishal

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  7. @Mary... thanks for the reco. Please accept my apologies for the very, very, very, very late response....

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