Sunday 24 June 2012

Historical Fiction vs Historical Fact - Part 4

Part 4: Realism vs Idealism

Next, I'd like to discuss an underlying and common, though often unacknowledged debate between the Realists and the Idealists when it comes to fiction

At one end of the continuum we have the rose-coloured-glass-wearing, starry-eyed, tree-hugging, glass-half-full romantics....
At the other end are the skeptics, the survivors, the pessimistic doom-sayers, cynical, glass-half-emptys.....


…..though most of us are distributed somewhere in between, and occasionally change places depending on our life-experiences and personalities. Most of us find that representatives from either extreme are either annoying or depressing, so I'll leave them for the moment.

Idealism in fiction

This element tends to be more popular among fiction readers and movie-goers than realism, for reasons I've already discussed. It has had a long tradition in the history of reading, and other media, and doesn't appear to be dying by any means. Most of us still look to a happy ending, and feel cheated if the bad guy gets the girl, the hero loses or comes to an ignominious end.
A sad but honourable death for the hero? Yeah, that’s OK… sometimes….  provided he died for a noble cause, his death brings the bad guys to their knees in remorse, a memorial is raised for perpetuity, his kids/followers are inspired to carry on his battle for freedom, justice etc etc. That leaves us feeling uplifted and a bit teary. But … Yeah! That was a good read/movie, that was!

Taken too far, however, idealism leads to over-sentimentalism (my daughter calls it “Mushiness”) and predictability. I think of the TV series in the 50s, the Cisco Kid. Cisco always outshot, out-fought, outwitted the bad guys,; there was always a señorita to flirt with but leave; there was always a chase where Cisco jumps from his horse to bring down the bad guy; and the latter were always such lousy shots! Us kids loved it for the first 100 episodes, but then it began to pall.
The Scarlet Pimpernel was one of my favourite reads for a while. Baroness Orczy did a good job, I think, but looking back, even my own sentimental tummy turns over at some of it. I don’t like dairy-milk-coated sugar candy any more. One’s taste changes (Matures? Possibly) with age. Romance and larger-than-life characters will never die, I believe, but that all has to be balanced.

Realism in Fiction

Obviously, realism is like adding salt to our meal, and choosing savoury from the menu rather than sweet. Even the sentimental-leaners like myself like a taste of the “Real World”, and acknowledge the tragedies of life, the fact that we live in an imperfect world. The reality check is not always unpleasant.  I’ve read many a historical novel that ends with the survival of the fattest, the good guys defeated and in retreat, or exposed as fools or even just as bad as the bad guy – and enjoyed it, if it’s written well. We feel that it does us good to see a little bit of blood ‘n’ guts, thinking “Yeah! That’s how it must have really been. That’s how they really felt.”
My taste in TV viewing has changed more to documentaries than fictional drama. That’s quite amazing for a dreamer like myself.
The next series I want to write is based on a movement toward freedom that was brutally repressed. I hope to deal with it in an uplifting, not a negative manner, if I can..

However, I’ve read some reviews and blogs that object to too much blood ‘n’ guts, and they pine for a little bit of English Countryside in Autumn in an Old Fashioned, Charming Rural Village etc etc.
It can lead to depression. I don’t always finish reading/watching such stories. Why read this stuff when you here it on the News every night? I'm not alone in that attitude, am I!?

Where am I on the continuum?

I have to admit to being a bit on the idealistic side of the continuum, being a bit sentimental.
I started writing the "Poor Preachers" from that angle, and it served its purpose for the beginning.
I had a general interest in history from previous reading. I read history books, dry though they were, to learn about the history –makers of the past. Then I came upon Dr John Wycliffe and his Lollard preachers.
Suddenly, the glorious vision of noble and dedicated preachers defying the odds, enduring hardships and persecution to bring hope to the hopeless burst in upon my imagination. It  motivated me enough to start on the whole journey. It gave me the basic plan of the whole series still to come.
I must admit that the hero theme has been a major influence. I even added a nice gooey romance between a hero and heroine. I was on cloud V9.1.

Then my daughter picked up the first draft of my manuscript. She has been an amazing support and sounding board in much of my writing, and I feel that every writer must have someone like that in their life.
She leans somewhat on the Realist side. I guess you know what follows:
“Hey, it’s a great story, Dad, but parts of it did make me feel a bit queasy…….”
I came down to earth somewhat, but not completely.
In the ensuing revision of my revision of my revision, I “de-mushified” the more sentimental sections, even dropping a scene or two. (But I still insist on having my romance in it somewhere :-P ) But that may change with time. Who knows?

So…..Where are you on the continuum?

All comments are welcome, provided they’re not too sentimental or cynical…..

Saturday 16 June 2012

Historical Fiction vs Historical Fact - Part 3

Pt 3: The Philosophy

So what am I saying in all of this?

I’m not taking sides. It’s not: “Fiction is EVIL! it’s escaping reality, a waste of productive time and money.”
Neither am I saying: “Fiction RULZ! Let’s throw out all the dry ol’ text books and science manuals and rewrite everything as an exciting narrative!”
No way, José! We need ‘em both.

 As a horticulturalist and a writer who’s fascinated with metaphors, I look at life like a tree:

The interaction of roots and soil together can be likened to facts, scientific observation (when it’s done properly), data, laws of the universe (physical or spiritual) ………. all of this stuff is the foundation for our lives, keeps us steady ‘n stable through the storms, gets the life flowing in us, what we draw from as the source of basic life. They are something to fall back on when the top of the tree falls.
They’re not much to look at, often kept out of sight.
But your tree is a goner if your roots are cut off, die or shrivel. Writers must remember this as well.

Leaves represent what we manufacture from what our roots provide, plus what we draw from our environment. This could be seen maybe as statistics (when they’re collected thoroughly and interpreted in a scholarly manner), rules of the game, history (when it’s accurate!), laws of the land, policies, procedures, norms etc. I would like to suggest that these are also our real stories, our character, what we truly are and characterized by. Sometimes attractive, sometimes boring, sometimes seen but taken for granted. Writers use this as their source material. Successful writers can turn a boring leaf into something interesting, at the very least.

The trunk and branches, I think, represent the infrastructure, the way we communicate and organize the facts so we can get them where they’re needed. Good writers, teachers and management sytems can be included in this. Breakages in this area can be disruptive, but we can get up again and recover.

But what’s the point of it all if we don’t produce flowers?  The flowers are the romance of the tree, the “Wow!” factor. I like to think of it as representing the arts, the media …. the writers ….. our dreams and aspirations ….. recreation. Without them, our tree looks bland, no matter how functional it is. They inspire and motivate us to keep growing, much more than our roots or leaves could ever do. Yes, the flower can be deceiving at times, but it represents the beautiful side of life and people …. or at least, the way life could be. That is also the role of the fiction writer.

But there’s no ultimate purpose to the whole thing no matter how attractive or romantic our tree is, if there’s no fruit produced. Flowers are only the promise of fruit. It deceives us if it doesn’t deliver what it was created for. After we’ve gotten over the Wow-factor, after the honeymoon and the party’s over, we want to see that it’s all been worthwhile. The manager looks for the bottom line dollar, the ROI. But most of us, if we are true to ourselves, look for happiness, a full life ……. FULFILLMENT.

It’s that divine spark within us that cannot be truly quenched. We’ve seen it right throughout history.
Us fiction writers need to have a purpose, a goal in our writing beyond just the romance, important though it is. Is money the ultimate fruit? Is it fame? More stuff? A few of us get these, but then what?

How about things like:

  • Leaving our readers with a sense of hope (NOT illusion) for the future?
  • Giving our readers an appreciation of those who forged our past, our roots, where we came from, inspiring them to walk the same glory-road?
  • Graphically warning our readers of the mistakes and bad choices of the past, so we can hopefully learn from them? It’s been said that one thing we learn from history is that mankind never learns from history. At least we can inspire some of our readers to change that.

As a historical novelist (have a look at “The Poor Preachers”) , I like to think that that’s what I’m doing. If I get that kind of feedback, I'd know that I haven't wasted my time.

Romance? YES.
Facts? Mostly, wherever I can get them.
Make money? It would be nice, but not my ultimate fruit.
Fame? Well…. Let’s wait and see…. But don’t hold your breath!

More next week….

Sunday 10 June 2012

Historical fiction vs Historical fact.

Pt 2: The Psychology

OK, so last week we noted the overwhelming success and popularity of narrative over merely reporting facts, movies over documentaries, science fiction over science journals, human interest over human behavioral science, romance over “The Rise & Fall of Rome” etc.. etc.. and applied it to an educational context. Let’s explore the reasons why fiction in general is so popular.

I must butt in with a “But….” here. 

Personally I like docos. I watch far more of these on SBS than I do any movies, drama series, sitcoms and I definitely eschew soapies like the plague! This may be an age/cultural thing for me, but I’m certainly not alone in my preference. Documentaries are on the rise in popularity, especially docu-dramas (where historical fact meets a form of historical fiction, take note.)
I also have a fascination for certain sciences, but that’s more of a personal preference or professional interest. I don’t disparage these at all. But I appear to be in the marginal minority.
The point I was making was that in media, when it comes to the bottom line, and the top dollar, imagination is far more powerful than reality.


If you are a no-nonsense number-cruncher or a fact-finder of any kind, you'll probably be scratching your head and saying “I don’t get it! It’s reality that gets you real results.  It’s the truth that sets you free. It’s working with facts that makes the factory work. Why this fixation on fiction? Isn’t it time we grew up??”

Of course, there’s the obvious reasons that people come up with in reply, like:
I need some down-time from reality.
Gimme a good read/movie, I get a good high.
Facts are boooooooring.  They got no soul.
I leave all that dry stuff to my accountant/lawyer/systems analyst etc.
And so on. And all of the comments above are quite legitimate and balance each other.

But why do we need down-time from reality? The world of fiction is so seductive (I’m not talking about sexual fantasy here) yet destructive if we live in it too long. Why is it so hard to put a good book down, when the “real” world is screaming at us to be productive, make more money, become famous? Don't we want to be productive? Make more money? Become famous?

I’d like to suggest that one reason is that we have a certain divine spark within us that sometimes bursts into a flame of revolt against mediocrity and ordinary-ness. We are more than just a complex set of chemical reactions. We are more than a logical sequence of genetic code. We have this innate desire to rise above the cynical world of dog-eat-dog.

Back in the 50s I not only worshipped the Lone Ranger and Zorro, I became the Lone Ranger and Zorro. I wanted to be the mysterious knight in shining armor who became the friend of the friendless, righted all wrongs, outwitted and defeated tyranny. These were demi-gods to whom I related much more than the skinny, awkward, fearful kid that I was, whom other kids mocked. I was only vaguely aware of that divine spark within, that tried to take me beyond basic survival instinct.

Even in later life, a good historical novel can still do that for me, although the high is not so high, so the come-down to everyday life is not so painful. But I still long for the age of chivalry to return, although I know full well that very few knights lived consistently by that code.

More on this next week….

Sunday 3 June 2012

Historical Fiction vs Historical Fact - Part 1: Education

I'm starting a series here, discussing some of the questions raised by the Historical Fiction phenomenon, and making some observation about the tension between historical fiction and historical fact.

What do I mean by a "tension" between them? OK, I'll explain:

Why has historical fiction in any media (hard copy, ebooks, video production and not-so-recently, as computer games) become such a raging success, without any apparent end to its popularity?
Among the greatest Blockbusters of All Time and box office hits, there have been quite a few in historical settings?
There's Ben Hur (Bigger-than-Elvis?), Pride & Prejudice, numerous Arthurian legends, Gladiator, endless war movies, western after western and the list goes on.

Compare the success of these with historical documentaries, even docu-dramas and... well... it doesn't compare!
Mega-mega-bucks have been spent and have been made on the big historical movies.
Limited budget when you do a doco, and if it's really professionally done, it might possibly make it to SBS prime time.
Obviously the romantic aspect of fiction has an infinitely greater appeal, but it has been said more than once:
"Whoever does not learn from history is doomed to repeat it."
History -- REAL history -- is vitally important. It's where we've come from. It will help to determine where we are going.

As a teacher, I'll start with how this tension affects education, at least from my point of view.
Serious-minded and conservative educationalist might shrug their shoulders at this comparison and say:
"OK. Historical movies, historical novels = Weekend entertainment. But we have to learn REAL history at school/college/uni! Documentaries? Of course! We use them all the time!"

Hmmm. Maybe. But I'd like to challenge that paradigm somewhat.

My response is: Why shouldn't education be entertaining?
True, there are certain aspects of learning that are just plain hard work. But must it be like that all the time? More and more forward-thinking educationalists are recognizing the power of computer games as a highly motivational medium for things like mathematics, sentence construction. Why not other media? Why not other disciplines?

My first real appreciation of history began with stories my mother read to me as a little child, and from historical novels as I grew older. Allowances are made for romanticising of course (e.g. Was Robin Hood always the good guy? Was he even real?)
I call it the Power of the Narrative.
So many times at school, kids in my generation have groaned at the very thought of walking into a history class. I couldn't wait to get home and pick up one of my historical novels. Then I started to see the connection, and history became one of my favorite subjects.
A well-written and engaging historical novel can win hands-down over dry biographies and chronicles every time in my experience. Give students a good, appealing relevant historical novel to read (or maybe a movie based on it first, if there is one) and I'll bet my bottom dollar they'll be motivated to examine some of the important facts later, giving them better grades.

History is not the only discipline either. How about regional geography, SOSE, psychology, theology (Jesus Christ was the greatest story-teller of them all) and many aspects of Science that have human interest? Obviously there are certain hands-on tasks, for instance, where the narrative is inappropriate, but even then I have followed many manuals that contain case-studies written in a narrative style.

People can relate to subject matter much better that way. Facts can be viewed in their proper perspective, fitting into the general scheme of things.

Do we throw out all the tried-and-true methods of teaching and get our students to read novels, watch blockbusters and play computer games? Ridiculous of course! Horses for courses. But give them other options if the tried-and-true don't work for them. Don't necessarily write these learners off as "backward" or "slow learners."
Everyone has their different learning style in different disciplines at different stages. We've all heard stories (histories!) of people who have made it BIG, intellectual giants, but were far from model students at school.

Waddya think?

Next week I'd like to broaden my scope a bit....