The simplest form of then is a date.
If you put down 13th November 1866 at the top of the first page, your job afterwards (unless you’re writing steampunk or time-travel fiction) is only to include in the story what really existed on or by that date.
The same goes for 13th November 2019.
Anachronisms in historical fiction are generally reckoned to be a no no. However, this applies mainly to anachronistic stuff, not to anachronistic perceptions or thoughts or emotions.
Elsewhere, a while ago, I had a proper go at historical fiction. Since then, I’ve calmed down a bit. But I’d still say that a lot of historical fiction is based on subtle and pleasurable anachronism.
It’s the anachronism of putting someone from now back then.
What I mean by someone from now is someone who shares the values of now, who has the expectations of now, who sees things as we do now.
This is, in the most obvious way, to make the main person in the story – I can’t avoid the word – relatable.
Let’s say that the main person in the 13th November 1866 story is a young woman of sixteen years-old, and her main preoccupation is not love or revenge but piety. She attends church, but also spends most of her free time praying. She keeps a diary, and all it contains are her concerns about the state of her immortal soul.
Such a person is definitely fascinating and worth writing about. But I would suggest that she does not very often occur in mainstream historical fiction. And certainly not as the main person. Not unless she falls in love, and questions her faith.
The main person will have desires that sync with the desires of now.
Cloud-illusions I recall
There are more overarching implications of importing now into then – particularly in what is seen and what is noticed. But they’re almost invisible.
It’s a strange fact but people in the past didn’t notice the sky all that much, except to look out for good or bad weather, until the Romantics came along and started being Nature-obsessed. (Let’s say, around 1774.)
When I say people didn’t notice the sky, I don’t mean they didn’t see it. I’m sure they did. And sometimes stared at it with admiration. But they didn’t record what it looked like in their letters and diaries. It wasn’t that important to them. It wasn’t worthy of notice.
Same goes for mountains.
However, a description of the sky in a novel set in 1750 – a first person narration – wouldn’t be noticed at all by just about every genre reader. It’s just natural for someone to feel moved by a sunset, and feel the need to put that down in writing. (Of course, they’re literate.)
Which is all to say – the then of the past is generally the now of the present, disguised as cleverly as it can be, for the purpose of delighting the reader.
The most successful historical novels of recent years, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, give a very now version of then. It’s a literally post-modernist (James Joyce’s Ulysses) version of a far-off now.
A huge amount of what Mantel does, in her acute, beautiful paragraphs, is to write in a way that makes the present physical moment very immediate.
And this immediacy, in itself, this prioritising of the nowness of now, is very much now imported back to then.
One of readers’ highest pieces of praise is ‘I felt like I was there’.
We don’t go for summaries of action; we want moment by moment and blow by blow. Hence the greater number of stories written in the first person present tense. (The most influential example being Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.)
You don’t need to huff about this, or distain it. You just need to be aware of it. You need to be aware of it when you’re doing research, to make your story historically accurate. You need to be aware of it when you’re having your main person notice or think or feel something.
You are a voice with a tale worth telling, not an eye-witness to the past.
In all writing, now inevitably pervades then. If you want to read then, pure, you just have to pick up a book written in 1866. But more people read novels set in any given year than letters or diaries written in that year.
Because the thenness of then isn’t what they’re after. They’re after the nowness of a story.
More recent nows
Fewer of these questions arise when your chosen then is not so long ago.
If your story is set within your living memory, you will need to do less research to get details factually right.
There won’t be such an issue with relatability, because the world that produced your main person will be the world that produced your reader.
(Many sixteen year-old girls are keeping pious diaries today. However, they are still our contemporaries. They are more likely to notice clouds and mountains.)
However – and it’s a big one – what goes for historical fiction goes for all fiction that will be read by someone from a very different place to the one being written about.
Cultural distance is equivalent to temporal distance.
One of the reasons I’ve started to go more easy on historical fiction is that, in lots of ways, all writing is historical fiction.
We’re all putting down words that mediate between the then of our head and the now of the reader’s head.
A good tip for someone writing about 2020 is to think what elements of it will still be remarkable for someone in 2050.
Exercise: Write a piece of historical fiction set more than 30 years ago that is full of obvious anachronisms. Give your main person a contemporary sensibility. Stuff your world with stuff from now that just didn’t exist then. Don’t worry about anything except giving what you write energy. It’s a romp through the past, not a trudge with footnotes.
Then scroll down.
Now look back at what you’ve written, slightly breathless and flushed – how did that feel? That ride? That freedom?
Can you transfer that? In order to get yourself out of the shit, do you need to make writing a bit more of a romp all the time?
One more of the five questions to go. And it’s an important one.