Welcome to the Historical Fiction Craft Notes newsletter. Thank you for joining me on this journey. Here are a few opening thoughts.
Happy New Year to you all. I hope 2023 brings us all some of the things we strive for and hope for.
New reader? Browse through the free newsletter archives and subscribe.
With this first edition, I’m sharing some thoughts on the whys and wherefores of this newsletter. I’d love to know your expectations and suggestions too, please. You can share them in the discussion area below and, as always, I will respond.
A Quick Personal Introduction
First, if you’re new to my work, please feel free to check out my bio, books, publications, and press. Most of my literary translation work is centered on historical fiction. Several of my own published short stories have focused on historical or near-historical events too. My current work-in-progress novel (of which an excerpt will soon be published at a lovely venue) is set in medieval India. In 2020, I founded Desi Books, a multimedia forum for South Asian literature. While we feature both classic and contemporary books from all over the world, we lean more toward translated works and historical fiction.
Why a Historical Fiction Craft Newsletter?
Some of you may also know that I teach a multi-week course on historical fiction craft at Writing Workshops Dallas. The next one, starting on January 16th, will be my seventh such workshop. Over the two years of teaching, I’ve read the works of and provided extensive critiques/feedback to more than fifty participants. Many of those participants have asked for some ongoing support after workshop completion. Often, we’ve unspooled new threads of craft topics during our sessions together. This newsletter is one way for me to continue those exploratory discussions.
The other main reason for this newsletter is more personal. For some time now, I’ve been wanting to create a space to share my learning and build a small community around this genre. Last year, I began the ‘We Are All Translators’ newsletter with a similar goal of sharing my learning on the art and craft of literary translation. That community has grown beyond my expectations. Having a regular practice of thinking and writing about the art and craft of literary translation has helped me clarify my own ideas, preoccupations, and approaches. I plan to do the same with historical fiction craft too.
What Can You Expect from This Newsletter?
What does all of this mean for you? Why should you bother subscribing? I give you my three Cs:
Constancy: I intend to publish this monthly, at least for the first few editions. I may switch to biweekly if there’s more interest or if I have more to share on certain topics. The monthly cadence, I believe, will allow time to probe deeper, beyond the usual surface-level ideas and approaches.
Content: In addition to deep dives into historical fiction craft aspects (e.g. worldbuilding, research techniques, etc.), I will share lists and mini-reviews of favorite books—novels and craft how-to guides.
Community: Once we have an established rhythm in place, I plan to invite other writers to share their thoughts on historical fiction craft via interviews. And, of course, I will include topical discussions where all of you can contribute as well.
In the discussion area below, please let me know what historical fiction craft topics might be of most interest to you.
Let’s close with a quote and a folktale.
A Hilary Mantel Quote
One of my all-time favorite writers, Hilary Mantel, passed away last year. Her Wolf Hall trilogy, which I try to reread once a year, continues to be a masterclass in historical fiction craft.
In 2017, she gave her famous BBC Reith Lectures. In the first lecture of the series, she talked about why she became a historical novelist. This is more than a writer’s origin story. It is a personal writing manifesto and a strong argument for why this genre matters. There are many quotable bits but, for now, let’s meditate on this:
We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? We rely on history to tell us. History, and science too, help us put our small lives in context. But if we want to meet the dead looking alive, we turn to art.– Hilary Mantel: why I became a historical novelist (The Guardian; transcript from the first BBC Reith Lecture)
Catch the entire podcast series of her five lectures here. I’ll repeat: together, they are a masterclass in historical fiction craft.
For me too, this is more than a genre I enjoy reading and writing. It is an imaginative mode of exploring and interrogating the past to understand how it has shaped our present.
History may be seen as a scientific (versus an imaginative) evaluation of the past. But it is not an exact science because no historian is free from personal, patriotic, social, economic, political, educational, and psychological biases when they select and interpret what they consider factual realities.
As with my translation practice, I’m not interested in ensuring complete “fidelity” to the facts as received. I am more interested in reconstructing the gaps and omissions of a past era—with its full intent and spirit, mind you—such that we gain a new appreciation of it all.
And then, for those of us still haunted by the lingering shadows of our communal past (as I wrote recently about the Partition), it continues to be a sucker punch reminding us of its unfinished business and how its endlessly long arms will always hold our present and our future hostage.
Historical Fiction as Recovery and Reclamation: A Folktale
Which brings me to this classic Indian folktale about Emperor Vikramaditya. There are many ancient and allegorical Indian folktales about or related to this illustrious—some might even call him apocryphal—ruler, who was renowned for his generosity, wisdom, bravery, and patronage of the arts and the sciences. One of these stories involves his famous descendant, King Bhoj. Actually, it’s the frame story of an unattributed and much-translated collection titled Singhasan Battisi, meaning “thirty-two (tales) of the throne.”
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.
This luminary, Bhoj, encounters a poor Brahmin priest-turned-landowner behaving erratically—acting as a generous soul when standing at a particular location and as his usual miserly self* the rest of the time. When Bhoj has that curious spot dug up, they find his ancestor Vikramaditya’s grand, bejeweled throne. Mystery solved. The Brahmin, unbeknownst to even himself, had been influenced by the legendary Emperor’s generosity when standing right above that throne.
The story goes on with how Bhoj has the throne brought to his vast courtroom so that he might sit on it. But the thirty-two Apsara statues carved all around this glorious, one-of-a-kind throne come to life, dancing and warning him to not do so. Unless, they trill at him beautifully, he has done many Vikramaditya-like virtuous and magnificent deeds. Otherwise, the intense energy of that famous throne will be, they caution, too much for a mere mortal.
Stunned, Bhoj admits to not knowing these legendary past deeds and asks to be educated so that he might better understand the enduring power of this Emperor’s epic past on their present. And the thirty-two Apsaras proceed to tell him a fantastic fable each about the immortal Vikramaditya.
*Note: it’s an old story, hence the miserly Brahmin stereotype.
Your Turn: What Draws You to Historical Fiction?
To me, both the quote and the story are necessary reminders of how our past is always with us and influences us in ways we may not even realize. And, oftentimes, fiction is the only way to recover, reclaim, and reframe what has either been dismissed or footnoted by historians, scholars, and academics because of biases or blinkers of their own.
I’d love to know what draws you to this genre as a reader or a writer. What fascinates you the most about historical fiction craft? Please share your thoughts in the discussion area below.
Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. Here are some ways you can support the work: