On Writing Historical Fiction
One day this period that we are living in will be the subject of historical fiction. Our Instagram, electric cars, and smart phones will seem like medieval devices. We will seem backwards in our dress and old-fashioned in our thinking. People will think the 2020s were populated by small-minded simpletons, that the people were afraid of science and new ideas, that the governments were stuffy and the class divide was great.
I write westerns under the name, Elwood Flynn (they will be published next year, but you can find Elwood on Instagram if you are interested in following that journey) and so I spend a lot of time thinking about how people thought back then.
It is easy to write two dimensional flat characters, stereotypical and slightly less intelligent than our far superior future selves. To write engaging real people in historical fiction you have to keep in mind one very important thing: Every person who has ever lived believed that they were living in the most modern times in all of history.
Cowboys photographed in grainy photographs in the late 1800s, in bowler hats and waistcoats; how old-fashioned their minds must have been. But even though these were gunslingers in a lawless land, they were wearing the highest Victorian fashion of the time, dressed like the British upper-class. Even outlaws were trendy, just not to us, not now.
Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch were some well-dressed dudes.
Maybe people will look back at teenagers in DCs and hoodies, and wonder, “Why were the teenagers back then dressed so formally?”
That’s how I dressed when I was a teenager, twenty years ago. When people were afraid of youths wearing hoodies. Front page news: BEWARE THE HOODIE! And now there are photographs of politicians wearing hoodies to make themselves seem more normal. More like the average working class man. Rishi Sunak, the British MP, trying to fool us in his hip garb.
Could you imagine Winston Churchill wearing a hoodie?
We think the ideas we are having now about people being scared of vaccines, or getting angry at cancel culture, are modern problems. And they are, just as they have always been.
This is a classified ad from 1952 –
There are articles from the 1800s about the new smallpox vaccine. One article from the Chamber’s Journal, July 31, 1886, reads, “The newspapers constantly remind us that there are many persons in the kingdom who object to vaccination…”
Comedian’s from 1903 declaring we can say, “good-bye to comedy” because racial and ethno stereotypes were banned on the stage.
In 1957, comedian George Gobel said, “…a TV comic nowadays needs the soul of a seismograph to know where the rumble of public wrath is coming from. We have to be verbal tightrope walkers.”
It has always been this way, and so it will remain. Nothing changes. Not really. We are not advanced. We have not learned from our ancestors.
We have always been, and will always be, modern.
There is a film from 1971 by Ken Russell called The Devils. It was banned pretty much everywhere for its blasphemous sex scenes (the infamous raping of Christ being the main problem), and has still not been released in full by Warner Bros. But that film did something very interesting. If you watch it, it looks weird to the eye. The sets are all so… modern. The prison scenes have bright white tiles, brand new bars. The town walls and the castle are clean and built with new stone.
The film is set in 17th century France and when the set designer came to build the sets, he went, as one does when making a historical film, to create moulds of crumbling walls. Ken Russell stopped him, reminding him that at one time these old castles were not old castles, but modern architecture. And so they built them as new. When we watch The Devils, we are not watching old fashioned people in the past being barbaric, we are watching modern people in the present raging against new ideas, just as we do now.
People have always had complex thoughts. There has always been extremes in outlook. There have always been people who are racist and bigoted, but there has also been people who are against those things. Not everyone in the 1800s was racist, otherwise the politicians, who sink or swim in an ocean made of popularity, would never have been able to abolish slavery.
This post has gone on longer than I had planned, and it’s all to illustrate one point. One lesson about writing historical literature. We must view them with a modern eye.
The thing is, about those cowboys I write about in my westerns, they have no idea that they are living in the past.