Great Motivational Posters about Gambling, Homosexuality and More

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Topical Tuesday: How Historical Should Historical Fiction Be?

I’m going to have to preface this with the qualification that I’m a historian by training, specializing in Judaism, Christianity and comparative religion. This makes me, for all intents and purposes, a little biased when it comes to my opinions on the necessary degree of historicity of historical fiction.

The Benefits of Historical Fiction

But this doesn’t mean I’m not a fan. It actually means I love historical fiction, because I think, when done well, historical fiction can provide a flavor and understanding of a time and place that is missed amidst facts and theories and trying to understand the whys of history. Historical fiction allows us to imagine dimensions of historical circumstances not previously thought about by creating characters with personalities and lives that before were only a series of dates and events.

Moreover, by including a complex story in a finite amount of space the disconnected facts can more easily be visualized as a multitude of simultaneously occurring factors and motivations that coalesced in that which we consider to be the relevant moments. That reflects history better than many history classes can. Though this is often the goal of historians – to properly blend the whys and hows in order to arrive at the historical circumstances in question – historical fiction allows far more people to achieve this outcome and see the beauty of the events as the historian might wish for them to be seen.

Good Historical Fiction

There are some television shows right now that I think do a particularly great job: Mad Men and The Tudors, to name but two (The Tudors is a complicated issue though). One book that I found to be particularly well done historical fiction was The Last Jew. Another excellent one was Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore, written as a lost gospel and the parts of Jesus’ life that are entirely absent in the Bible. Truly excellent stuff.

How Historical It Should Be

That said, I expect an incredibly high level of competence and understanding on the part of the author before s/he undertakes a project of historical fiction. A veritable expert s/he must be. I think it’s fine to invent people that don’t exist and conversations that didn’t happen amongst people that did, and to create new events so long as they don’t distort history. It’s a difficult line to walk.

I think that the characters who were real should reflect all current and respected scholarship on the personality of that character, though interpretive liberties are obviously acceptable so long as the character does not become someone else. If, in the Tudors, Henry VIII were portrayed as a courteous, non-self-centered, timid fellow, I would be pretty put off. Historical fiction should seek to better explain and bolster what we do know and our understanding of the people or era under discussion – as well as to entertain of course. Changing known historical events, which isn’t to say embellishing, is unacceptable.

I also think that all historical fiction should come with an explanation by the author of what’s being done: the goal, what’s being changed and what liberties taken, what’s not, why these decisions were made, and anything the reader should know to be able to differentiate between history and historical fiction. There’s nothing I hate more (hyperbole) than someone with a poor knowledge of history (or religion) reading historical fiction and then thinking that what they read is all true and having no way to differentiate the true from the invented. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

First of all, horrible book – so bad I wanted to rip my own head off. Worse still, that a friend of mine thought he understood the fine points of Christian theology and the truth behind Christianity and the Church after reading this book. Yes, we are told up front that places and works of art are being described as they are, but I don’t think that helped everyone. Even if it was a sufficient explanation, the book itself sucked: three page chapters with suspense that turns out to be nothing at the end of every one. I thought I was reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps again.

But that’s more than enough from me for now. What do you think about historical fiction? What’s important to you and how historical should it be? What are your favorite works of historical fiction and why?

Check out Chandler’s different take on the matter HERE.

To read some other Topical Tuesday posts, click HERE. To read Fun with the Bible, click HERE.

Topical Tuesdays: E-books, Kindle and Books Not on Paper

As many of you know, on Tuesdays, Chandler and I each take on an issue relevant to the writing and publishing world and discuss it. You are invited to comment on both of our blogs with your own thoughts and to blog about the topic and send us links to what you wrote.

This week’s topic is, as the subject line would indicate, e-books, Amazon’s Kindle and basically, the fact that many books and publishing are moving to formats that are not ink on paper. How do I feel about this? Well, it’s a mixed bag, to be sure.

On the one hand, reading is reading and whether it is facts or fiction, stats or imagined tales, history or futuristic sci-fi, it’s valuable for the information contained in those words to be in our heads (unless it’s, say, Nazi propaganda or something, though even that has its place in a history class). They work our brains and imaginations no matter how they get in there: visually, orally, through Braille, sign language or ESP. Stories are good, facts are great and both are fantastic. Should it really matter if we’re holding a book open in our hands and running our eyes across ink blots on pulp? No, probably not. Running our eyes across zeros and ones on liquid gel or iPhone screens or Kindles from Amazon (a handheld device into which full length books are purchased and downloaded) probably ends up with about the same results. But there are two issues to consider (actually plenty more but two that I will raise): the wonder of discovering something in a book and the effects on the publishing industry.

In my experience, it is exhilarating to discover something in the actual pages of an original book. Allow me to elaborate. When I wrote my thesis, which can be read online at http://repository.upenn.edu/curej/10/, I had two options for doing research on eighteenth century Unitarian writings: 1. I could read the scanned versions of the books online at a repository for like books or 2. Fly to England and look at original copies of these texts in the British Library. Well, after a scholarship that allowed me to pursue the research, the decision became obvious. I went to England and read these books for information that no one had before and wrote my thesis, partially inspired by my experiences reading the original published texts of these eighteenth century brilliants. I even opened the handwritten sermons of eighteenth century Unitarian ministers and saw the words they crossed out and what they chose to say instead. Of course, that could suck for many, but for me it was a great experience, and I think that in the world of research, the experience of sitting in the archives and pouring over old texts is very important.

On the other hand, that anyone has the ability to research what I did because the material is available online is incredible! Many (i.e. enough) of these amazing books were online and anyone could have done what I did. It would have been less enjoyable looking at them on a screen and because of a variety of other factors I probably found more relevant materials but people could still enjoy these books because they’re online. More importantly, the information will not be lost as quickly: though a fire or time could destroy the original texts, they are now online forever (presumably). That’s a great thing.

The second issue is the effects on the publishing world. More people, through online publishing, have the ability to get their books out there because the publishing industry – which is picky, slow, cumbersome and elitist – is kept out of it. So, while we as readers may have more crap to filter through, potentially, everyone gets a chance, which means that more people can be discovered.

This also coincides nicely with the Long Tail theory of Chris Anderson, who explains that 1/3 or more of the market today, in books, music and movies, due to the democratization of instruments and the low/no-cost availability of them because of digitizing everything, is in the long tail of products – that is, those things that aren’t mainstream hits. That is, if there are 10,000 books worth publishing and they sell 6 million copies, and another 90,000 not worth publishers’ time but that get out there online, 3 million copies of those 90,000 books will still get sold, and even though it’s way more books our there, if it doesn’t cost anything because they’re digital, that’s still a third of the books sold getting rejected by traditional publishers and making up 90% of the available material (numbers are invented though they scale). That’s incredible and ebooks and Kindle are playing their parts in this expanding marketplace and the democratization of instruments and access. I think this is wonderful and if it happens to force the publishing world (as well as Hollywood and the music industry) to rethink its approach to who gets made then great. Sure, it could shake things up for a while but ultimately, just because things have been done one way forever doesn’t mean it’s right. Tradition is not sacred – especially not in business. Innovation is king, and if ebooks are changing things, rock on.

How do you feel about ebooks’ effects on the publishing industry? Do you disagree with me? Why? How about the democratization of instruments? Pro or con? Do you like books in your hand or do you mind reading from a screen? Love to hear what you think!

And don’t forget to check out Chandler’s thoughts at chandlermariecraig.wordpress.com.

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Read more about the writing process and other Topical Tuesday posts.