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The Pleasures of Historical Fictionby Anna Godbersen
Before I started in on The Luxe, the longest fiction project I'd managed to complete was a series of ghostwritten young adult novels set in contemporary Manhattan. They were breezy and fun to write, and I found that working in anonymity grew my confidence. By the time I finished the fourth, I felt pretty good about one day being able to write something approximately book-length that would have my name on the spine. It would be breezy and fun too, I thought, and written for a teen audience. Somewhere along the way, however, I had developed a tic that I wanted to unlearn. I found myself using the labels on the clothes the characters wore, or the famous restaurants that they ate in, as a kind of shorthand for where they had come from and what kind of people they were (which is sort of hilarious, considering how few famous restaurants I had been to). This is lazy writing, but widely utilized and remarkably effective, at least for the 15 minutes after a book's publication (or maybe after its sale).
My desire to free myself of the character description-via-consumer-product habit was one of the reasons that the Gilded Age, or any historical setting for that matter, originally held so much appeal. There weren't labels then, or at least where labels might have been were the names of couturiers like Worth or Doucet, and that wouldn't mean anything to most of my readers the significance would have to come from my own descriptions rather than culture-wide preconceptions, gleaned from magazines and the internet, such as the way possession of a pair of Jimmy Choos automatically denotes (or did at some point I'm probably behind) a glamorous girl in the city. Clothes, and everything else that the characters in The Luxe wear or touch or stumble upon, cannot be taken for granted. As I am writing, I have to stop and wonder if a turn of phrase or kind of doorknob would have been true to the time; I have to pause and ask myself what kind of ceiling my girls would see if they happened to sigh a little sadly and look up. That makes the process more difficult, but it also prompts me to be much more questioning and purposeful as I try to communicate the look and feel of this world. It breaks down my own assumptions, and hopefully those of the reader as well.
And of course I discovered, as I began to read histories and memoirs and old etiquette books and magazines, that while research can often be a form of procrastination, knowledge of another time is rich with new situations and problems for fictional characters to find themselves in. It is terribly plot-friendly. Rereading The Age of Innocence to get the feeling of old New York, I began to think of it as a kind of historical fiction, too the point of view of the final chapter, as well as the time period when Wharton wrote it, were nearly half a century removed from the era of strict social codes and mores that make the drama of the novel, not to mention its romance and much of its humor, possible. What is at times amusing and later tragic in the lives of her characters is entirely rooted in the strictures and suppositions of an era that is past and would have been curious to many readers at the time of its publication, and certainly is to readers now. This, I discovered, is what makes historical fiction so worth reading and writing. It allows for a world where a foreign set of rules and culturally held beliefs cue not just sumptuous costume-drama backdrops but entirely different sensations and adventures and ordeals for the people living in it.
There is anxiety there, too, of course. I will inevitably get the material of a doorknob, or some far more critical detail wrong, and one of the (quite fair, I think) criticisms of my series, which I have noted in Amazon reviews and on blogs, is that the feelings and actions of my characters are anachronistic. One of the pleasures of historical fiction is learning new facts about the past, and I do of course strive to get both details and the general spirit right. But I am also willing to be opportunistic about what I include or don't include. I am not a historian, and there are places where my contemporary ideas about the way people speak and act intrude, consciously and unconsciously. (It does bear saying that even historians often employ guesswork and imagination, especially when addressing the emotional lives of their subjects.) Ideally, the inner lives as well as the sights and sounds of the outer worlds of these books are not exactly true to the calendar year in which they are set or the date and time at which I typed sentences into a word document. They should work according to the logic of a separate, fantastical locale, which is influenced by but not fully of either. Any work of fiction is like that, I think. No matter where it sits on the realism scale, no matter how far-flung its environs, it is always an adaptation or an inspired-by, which the author has given unique focus to through the lens of herself.
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Anna Godbersen was born in Berkeley, California, and educated at Barnard College. She currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband, where she is at work on the sequel to Rumors.