*Yes, I’m taking another day off. Look, I’m finishing up a line edit and rewrite and for reasons known only to its designer, my brain shuts off non fiction when this happens. NOT fiction. Non fiction. Though Alma’s title made me think of a political post I want to do, called “Fictionalizing history.” Not about writing, curiously. Anyway — what is fascinating to me is that Alma — our very own TXRed is describing a lot of what I am in the middle of with the French revolution and Through Fire. More importantly, she’s reassured me I’m not the only woman who falls in love with guys centuries dead. (It’s okay. Dan has given me permission. I can fall in love with all the past guys I want, though not Kit Marlowe because that would be weird.) As long as they don’t come back as UNdead I’m in the clear. So, read Alma. She makes sense. (Which is more than I do this morning.)*
History as Fiction (More or Less): The Saga Begins
Let’s say you are enamored of a historical character you’ve read about. Or an event in the past seems like it would be just the thing to hang a story on, but, well, you don’t do historical fiction. What’s a writer to do? Sci-fi or fantasize it, of course, after some serial-number filing.
I’ve been interested in a certain European historical personage for many years. He had one of those “you couldn’t make this up” sorts of lives, lived to a ripe old age, died rich and respected, and left almost no personal documents or relatives. In short, he’s perfect fodder for all sorts of speculation. As I said, I’ve been intrigued by this individual for a decade at least. Finally, this winter, I got a wild hair to use his life as the basis for a one-off novella, just to get the idea out of my system. I finished the draft of the fourth novel about him on August first. Oops.
So, how did I go about turning a real person and real events into science fiction? First I had to know the basic facts of the original story. Next came the decisions about what to do with the setting and what changes to make, assuming that I would build detail into the world once I got started. And then I had to decide what to keep or change about the historical figure, based on what is known about him.
It began with research, because I needed details, not just about his life, but his times (roughly 1670-1750) and surroundings as well. Since I intended to focus on one particular moment in his long career, I found accounts of that battle and books describing the organization of the armies involved, what life was like in and around armies at that time, and other related things. That led to my reading back in time, into the Thirty Years War, and into Ottoman history, which caused (among other things) major revisions to the first and second books once I realized just how flaming long it took to get anywhere in the 1600s, even if the roads were in good condition.
Research well in hand, I needed to decide on the world. Would I try and replicate the original figure’s time in some way, or would I pull a David Weber and shift everything well into a high-tech future, or a la John Ringo bump it into the near future? I ended up replicating the technology level of his time. Why? Because I don’t think well in three dimensions. If I stayed low tech, I could avoid accounting for the effects of airpower. And I wanted a different world to play with, so creating a different, Earth-like planet gave me flexibility to rearrange geography and create hybrid cultures, and to address some questions (under-population, political organization, men’s and women’s roles in society, et cetera).
The next decision was the voice. Would I try and use the language of the historical person’s time? No. He spoke French, German, Latin, probably Italian, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he understood and spoke a little battlefield Turkish and Hungarian. He wrote in French, German, and Latin. If he had been a more recent German or English-speaking person I might have tried to use the language style of his time, but I just couldn’t do it in this case. To learn the languages’ “flavors” I would have had to find diaries from the time, and (alas) I couldn’t justify an archive run to France, England, and Austria in order to read the originals, the very few that still exist and that were not written for public consumption. What I did do was keep the formality he would have used, and the religious language. This was a very religious period, he fought religious wars, and he would likely have used invocations in his daily speech, especially around his employers, who saw themselves as protectors of Christians.
So, I have background material, I have language and voice, now all I needed to do was write. Except . . . how did he get from one end of Europe to the other? He rode. (A mule becomes a major character in my version of the story.) How did he advance so quickly once he got to his destination? He had letters of introduction and the Emperor was desperate. And then what? He worked very hard. Well, shucks, now I was most definitely staring at a novel! So I wrote the novel while doing more research and discovered that my memory had been wrong. He had not been in command at the big battle I’d planned on him winning. He’d been there as a junior commander. Oh bother. Right, the novel just became a trilogy and I made a massive deviation from the history of the event (but he’s still not in command).
And that meant digging into politics. Here things got a little tricky for me, because we’re not dealing with the modern ideas of nation-states. The historical figure swore allegiance to a dynasty and their empire, not to a country. And the empire was a loose amalgamation that assembled over several hundred years, not a centralized creation. As it turned out, I managed to escape dealing with politics until the third and fourth books. Other cultural things were more important.
Religion became a big deal, just as it was in the historical period I based things on. In the beginning I had minimized the religious aspects, but the more I wrote, the less happy I became with the results. By the time I was 20,000 words into the story, I decided to chuck the plan. Religion returned as a factor and a huge number of plot problems vanished. I did change the religions, for example keeping some features of traditional Roman Catholicism and eliminating others.
What else did I change? Not the technology, with a few special exceptions, mostly dealing with knowledge of technology rather than actually having the machines themselves. The story is now set on a colony planet that was abandoned by its sponsor (it had been losing money anyway) after a series of Carrington-type events led to the loss of ninety-nine percent of their electricity-based technology over the course of ten or fifteen years. Those events became the key point of the main character’s religion, taking the place of Noah’s Flood. Oh, and the main character was now a woman, with all the additional problems that entails for a world with no modern medical technology and only the most basic forms of birth control.
The other major difference was the main character’s sexuality. The historical personage, according to popular English-language sources, was a sodomite. The German and French-language sources are more ambiguous. He left no personal records and was notoriously discrete. I’m inclined to think that he was celibate or very, very careful, in part because his mother was a stellar example of how not to behave, even by the rather loose standards of the court of Louis XIII. My character started off celibate, which worked well in the religious milieu and eliminated the complications of marriage and pregnancy.
By the time I’d written half of what became the first novel, I knew I’d have to expand the story into three books, requiring more research and delving into the politics and personalities of the historical figure’s time. Which led to more decisions and complications, and eventually a fourth book. I’ve probably done a dozen things wrong in the process of developing these stories, but the characters seem satisfied. The author is, too, for the moment.
The series title is currently “The Colplatshki Chronicles,” a name taken from how the characters pronounce what they think is the name of their world. (It was designated “ColPlat XI” but called “Solana” in the advertising.) I will be submitting Book One to Naked Reader Press in the near future.