Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The benefits and challenges of writing real historical personages

See the intro post for more information on this blog series!

I chose to go the road of writing non-famous historical personages. Everyone, except the Clunaic Abbot Pons, is a figment of my imagination. We never actually see Pons, but we see the effects his (imagined) actions and his attitudes have on other people.

I suppose this approach makes sense, given my interests. If offered the choice between a biography of a great king, and a history of daily life during his reign, I'll always take the latter (in fact, I named Abbot Dubay in The Pilgrim Glass after historian George Duby, author, of among other things, the History of Private Life series).

Political history is obviously incredibly important and can be fascinating, but it's just one piece of the puzzle. Thousands upon thousands of people lived out their lives during that king's time on the throne, or that president's term. What were their lives like? What did they eat, what did they smell like, what was the state of their teeth, what colors were their clothing, how did they greet one another, what was the sound of their daily life? How was daily life different based on their class, gender, skin color, orientation? What were their marriage customs, their schooling, their death ceremonies? How can we recognize ourselves in that long line from their time to ours?

Of course, there are great benefits to writing about famous historical personages – for one thing, it's an easy shorthand for readers, a quick way to entice them into reading about a time period. It also affords writers a great starting point - the sketch of a character and plot to flesh out or refute with your own take. It's just not where my heart lies.

So, what do you think? Do you prefer to read about famous historical people? If you write Historical Fiction, do you find writing real historical people is easier or harder? Is it even an either/or construction?

Check out what Heather Domin and Rima Jean have to say on this topic!


  1. Crystal Di'Anno8:39 AM

    I think some great personages can be VERY interesting to write about, especially if not a lot has been done about them before. For instance, Sharon Kay Penman's "Here be Dragons" is about Llwellyn the Great, Prince of Wales, and his wife Joan of England. They're royalty, BUT very little had been written about them before, and that made them interesting.

    OTOH, someone like Queen Elizabeth I or Frederick the Great has been written about over, and over, and over, and over...find some fresh ground!

  2. What is it about royalty that interests you? What makes you want to read about Llwellyn and Joan, and not, say, a hostler who lived during their reign?

    (also: hi!)

  3. Historians can sometimes become very attached to people they study, to the point they almost feel like they know that person. For me, anyway, biographical fiction is kind of like spending time with a friend. It's almost like fanfiction, in a way. I think that's why I'm so choosy about it - I want a nice visit. :D