Historical fiction seems to be a trendy genre these days. I’ve written my share of historical fiction (Grace Note comes immediately to mind―I mean, if a book set in the twelfth century isn’t historical fiction, I’m not sure what is!).I’m launching my newest book today―Kat’s Kosmic Blues―and I’m wondering if it’s historical fiction to some people. The question is: when does a story qualify as historical fiction?
It seems clear that if a story takes place in the past and is fictional, it must, by definition, be “historical fiction.” But it seems that it’s not that clear at all.
The blurb on Masterclass that leads into Margaret Atwood’s class on creative writing says the following:
Historical fiction transports readers to another time and place, either real or imagined. Writing historical fiction requires a balance of research and creativity, and while it often includes real people and events, the genre offers a fiction writer many opportunities to tell a wholly unique story.
So, any novel that transports the reader to another time and place is historical―except when it isn’t. There seems to be a notion decreed by some parts of the online community that anything set 50 years ago or earlier is historical fiction. But really? If you’re sixty-five years old and lived through the period in question, then, for you, it’s not historical fiction at all. It may not be contemporary, but a story set fifty years ago won’t feel like it is in any way in the same category as, for example, The Girl with the Pearl Earring or The Thornbirds (to mention two of my favourites).
It seems then that what is historical fiction is a bit subjective. And what about a story that starts fifty-five years ago (1965) and sweeps you all the way to 1989? Historical fiction? Probably not. And that’s what I’m launching today.
Kat’s Kosmic Blues, the prequel to The Year I Made 12 Dresses, is really a contemporary book.
In these days of COVID restrictions, we really do have to find creative ways to launch books! Please join me here…
I am a hybrid writer – in more ways than one. These days the term hybrid – when applied to writers – often refers to those who have published via the traditional publishing route as well as taken matters into their own hands and self-published. That’s a recent moniker. I’ve been a hybrid writer for years – I write across genres and have been doing this almost since the beginning. It has its ups and its downs.
I started my writing career as a medical writer. Skills honed in that genre took me into medical communication which morphed into communication in general – most of my distant past work has been writing about health and corporate communication.
But, I’m a writer. I am not a content creator. I am not a dabbler. To me this means that I can use my skills to write anything that takes my fancy. With a secret adolescent desire to be a novelist percolating in my adult brain, I decided to move into creative non-fiction and wrote a memoir. I then realized that my extensive experience in doing background research on a variety of subjects could be put to good use if I tried my hand at writing in a genre that I loved to read: historical fiction.
As it turns out, meticulous research skills, honed in the areas of non-fiction, have been enormously useful to me in moving into historical fiction. Story-telling is also a strength that many of us have – it’s a skill that is important both to non-fiction (creative or otherwise) as well as to fiction writers.
Another way I think about the concept of “writing across genres” is the notion that there are discrete categories of writing and to create a mash-up, to use the current parlance, is to create a cross-genre genre. Make sense?
My interests in strong female characters, whether they are real people whose lives I’m writing about or historical figures woven into the fabric of a novel, also led me to an interest in contemporary women’s fiction. But traditional chick lit, with all of that entertaining silliness (not to mention their dumb covers) isn’t really my strong point, so I mashed up my interest in travel writing and chick lit to write a novel that is a bit chick lit that also presupposes a certain level of intelligence in the reader – and that includes a serious dose of a foreign setting that was researched thoroughly by both visiting the place and doing background digging. So what have I learned?
I have learned that there is a significant degree of pleasure for me to write in areas that use both my talents and my interests. I truly believe that this cross-writing has improved my writing overall. But it comes at something of a price – at least it is a price if you believe what it seems most everyone else is writing online about changing genres.
The loudest argument against this kind of movement seems to come from those for whom the main objective of writing is to sell books rather than to write them. I wonder what Ernest Hemingway, Leo Tolstoy, Daphne DuMaurier (my personal favourite) or even J.K. Rowling would have written if they had focused on what they thought readers wanted rather than on what they were compelled to write? Maybe nothing.
The new digital universe means that everyone of us can be a “published” writer. But the truth is that no matter what motivates us to write, most (almost all) will never make a living from that effort. Just accept that and keep writing.
As far as I’m concerned, focusing on continually improving your writing and pursuing the kind of writing that you want, regardless of how many different genres you choose, are the two elements of a happy writer. If the work is meant to become wildly successful, with a little effort in promoting to interested readers (no other desperate writers) it may indeed be successful. Even that “50 Shades of…” writer didn’t set out to please readers first. She set out to please herself.
I already know what ‘serious’ writers are going to say: chicklit is ‘dumb’ by definition. I beg to differ; however, I also think that the derision isn’t entirely without foundation. My own reading and writing habits have led me to this conclusion. But let’s start in broader terms to address the question of whether writing and the literature that is the result has, overall, suffered from the dreaded ‘dumbing down.’ Many believe so.
In a 2015 piece by Stephen Carter, a Blomberg View columnist (he also happens to be both a law professor at Yale and a novelist), he quotes prominent science fiction writer Ursula K. Leguin who refers to what she sees as the twenty-first century formulaic creation of best sellers in this way: “The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food…I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.”
Of course she refers to the influence of Amazon and its well-pondered algorithm for determining best-seller status. Carter, however, isn’t buying it. He believes that perhaps a more important part of the issue is that readers’ tastes have changed; attention spans are shorter. Perhaps we have done it to ourselves. But others take a different view.
There is much grumbling in the ‘serious’ writers’ communities about the perceived negative impact of self-publishing on current literature; there is a significant sentiment (not held by all self-described serious writers, I might add) that it has been the proliferation of unedited self-published books that has had the most serious effect.
One online writer has suggested that “with self-publishing it seems like the editors have all disappeared. Ten or more books on recent New York Times Best Sellers List are there because the millions of fanboys and fangirls have bought their hero’s book…maybe the bar is set a bit too low.”
So there seem to be two issues that people consider to be characteristics of ‘dumbed-down literature.’ The first one (and a big one for people like me who have taught writing over the years) is the issue of actual command of the language including grammar, syntax, spelling, word choice and all those things that our English teachers tried to inculcate in us over the years. The second one is the substance – or lack thereof – of the books that are popular today.
In my view, the truth is that quality writing can be practiced in any genre from literary fiction to popular erotica and everything in between. The topic seems secondary; if you’re passionate about writing it, you’re good at it, and your readers love it (or at least the first two if your readers haven’t found you yet), then I say write on. Even if what you write is derided by some as merely ‘chick lit.’
In general, the term chick lit means any literature that appeals mostly to women. So, what’s wrong with that? Does that make it dumb? If chick lit is dumb, then women are dumb by extension. Don’t say that to my face. But has even literature aimed at women been dumbed down? I have a personal hate on for many pieces of chick lit and it isn’t for the reasons you might think.
In my view, women are infantilized by their chick lit not so much by the stories or the writing, but byu the covers. Have you looked at any lately? I’ve been examining them as we contemplate the design of my new book which is women’s fiction. Is this really how women see themselves?
Well, I’m a smart woman and I write #litforintelligentchicks. In fact, I love to read chick lit, but I can’t get to your really great story if I feel infantilized by the dumb cover – whether it’s an illustration or a stock photo depicting a sweaty clinch and a few bits of a six-pack.
Okay, my rant is over. Back to the drawing board for that new cover.