Show And Tell

Regular readers know I recently attempted to write a full-length novel. I “finished” it, meaning I wrote it from start to finish, but it needs a lot of tender love and care. If my book were a house, it wouldn’t just need window dressings. You’d walk into the kitchen and find that it had no appliances, and attempt to ascend to the second story only to discover the stairs were installed upside down and inside out, severing the connection all together. There would be a bed in the bathroom, and light-fixtures but no bulbs.

There are obvious things that I’m working on right now. For example, there are changes I made to the story as I went along that turned out pretty well, but because I hadn’t originally thought of those changes the first half of the book doesn’t support those particular twists. I am trying to go back and tie it all together so everything leading up to the ending supports the outcome.

My characters are also underdeveloped. Do you know five people who all speak exactly the same way? Because I do. They are the flat characters in my book, which is historical fiction set in pre-revolution Russia because I love whimsy and hilarity. Nothing funnier than Russian winter and extreme poverty, right?

I chose Russia because I used to live there, but of course I didn’t live there in 1900 and I didn’t even have the decency to set the story in Moscow, where I went to high school. I wanted some proximity to the Tsar so it’s set in St Petersburg. We never actually meet the Tsar because the book is about peasants, which is another choice I made — I originally thought I’d write about a peasant who ends up working in the kitchen of the palace, but I got so bogged down in trying to make it historically accurate and incorporating real historical figures that I abandoned the idea. It was too much pressure for my first project to be a full-length novel and also a history paper.

The only thing my characters experience that I can draw from in my own life is the feeling of Russia. The bitter cold, for example, or the muddy mess of spring (which usually arrives closer to summer). The food is also kind of a character itself, and I’ve eaten a lot of Russian food and recently made a lot of those dishes from scratch to prepare to write about them. So basically, the book is about extremely poor peasants who are often very cold while eating various kinds of pickles because it’s too cold to grow anything and its always Lent so they can’t eat meat or dairy. It’s obviously a comedy.

A major pitfall in historical fiction is *telling.* If you’re writing about the Tudors, there is some implied knowledge of how people dressed and ate, but most HF novels require some hints to the reader, and after doing so much research as the author, it’s very hard not to just say the things you want the reader to know. Like, I don’t want to start with “It was a Thursday in 1894 and here I am in a village outside St Petersburg, Russia, and FYI the Communists aren’t really here yet, and oh also the women wear these long dressy things called sarafans and everyone wears a rubakha underneath their clothes which is that one Russian shirt everyone thinks of when they picture Russian men doing that kicky dance.”

Margaret Atwood talked about this issue in her Masterclass, but she wasn’t terribly comforting. She wrote a book about real events and did a lot of research, so she found it hard to refrain from just telling her audience what happened rather than showing the events through her characters. She also got bogged down in exact facts and said even that didn’t help because people would write her letters yelling about minute things they perceived to be incorrect. Atwood’s message seemed to be, “do a shitload of research, but don’t let the reader know you did the research, and then be prepared to be told your research is wrong and terrible.” Super helpful, thanks.

I gave myself some wiggle room by not introducing real historical people, but the historical events that take place around the characters are important, and I’m just not sure how much the average person knows about Russian history. I mean, I think most people know the last Tsar and his family were murdered, but do people know about the other Tsars? I lived there four years and there are huge holes in my knowledge of Russian history, so I worry my readers are going to be lost unless I say things more explicitly, but then that’s bad writing, so maybe we just use my book to stabilize the wobbly dinner table and forget the whole thing?

2 thoughts on “Show And Tell

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  1. Hello! I am already interested in knowing more about your book. The HF is something that really attracts me, even though I have always been scared to write about it because of what you mentioned. How historically precise should I be? If I am too much, then the fictional story that I am telling is forgotten and the book becomes a history book. But also, some historical facts are necessary for the readers to know “where” and “when” we are. I like writing about “future” fiction, if this is any type of narrative style, and I am struggling in being “technically” accurate in terms of physics, astrology and chemistry. I think it is kind of a similar issue to the historical one.
    Anyway, wish you all the luck in your book! Hope to hear more about it soon.
    Cheers.

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    1. I’ve read so many books that include a disclaimer at the end. “I changed some dates and reorganized events to make sense for the story, and all these characters are fictional except that one king…” and so on, so we can always explain ourselves after the fact, I suppose. It just can’t be so factually incorrect that it takes the reader out of the story while they’re reading.

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