Monday, August 21, 2006

Writing is Hard: World-building

Romance editor Anna Louise Genoese wrote a cool article on... well, it's on rejection letters, but that's not why I'm linking to it. Rejection letters are cool. I collect them. They mean that I'm actually submitting stuff, which means that I need to have a lot more than I do. But like I said: not the reason I'm bringing the article up.

In critiquing a specific rejection letter, Anna Louise talks about writing good, historical fiction; something that I'm interested in doing. She says: "The most common problem that I have noticed in historicals that are submitted to me is [that]... [a]ll the dialogue and narrative is very contemporary, but the setting is 1272 Occitania (or whatever). It's very hard to find a balance between historical accuracy and the contemporary..."

I know that's true. I once wrote an historical novella and made the choice to write the dialogue in a contemporary style. I rationalized that if I was going to be historically accurate, the dialogue would be unreadable, but I get now what Anna Louise is saying. In fact, some trusted writer friends at the time tried to tell me the same thing and I refused to listen. You can write dialogue in a narrative voice that sounds historical, even when it's not completely accurate. But it's not easy.

It's the literary equivalent of hiring British actors to star in your period film set in Germany. They won't be speaking German or even have German accents, but American audiences at least will accept it because it sounds old and European to them.

"Another problem that goes hand in hand with this one is the problem of research. Both published and unpublished historical authors often don't do enough research, which results in people who know anything about the particular time period cringing. OR! Or authors do too much research and then want to cram in every single thing they know about the time period. Which results in everyone cringing..."

[Transporting the reader back in time] is world building. It's not about flowery language. It's about adding in the details that make the world your characters live in real. World building is not just something that sf and fantasy authors have to do -- it's something every author has to do. I have never been to Olathe, Kansas, so if someone writes a book about Olathe, KS, I want there to be details that make the setting come alive in my mind. I want to be able to picture what it looks like and understand the way the characters feel about their location. The same goes for the time period."

She goes on to list a bunch of details you'd want to include in a story set in Olathe in, say, the '60s, before saying, "Then the question becomes, how can you convey these things to the readers without boring the crap out of them? There's no easy answer to that! Read a lot of historical novels and see how those authors do it. Then take their techniques and make those techniques work for you."

That's something that I plan to do. I've got a lot of historical fiction on my Reading List, so one thing I'll be paying attention to as I go through the pile is how the authors balance historical and contemporary prose, as well as the amount of detail their research has uncovered.

Anna Louise closes by giving plenty of links to sites that help writers know what kinds of questions they should be asking (and answering) when building a setting, so the whole entry is a very useful, highly recommended read.

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