Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hitchhikers and Historicals

Last week while weeding, I was listening to a recording of Eloisa James speaking at the RWA National Conference this past July. When she announced the title of her talk: 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Historical', I had my doubts. I don't know anything about The Hitchhiker's Guide, and I'm not really much of a fan of space-related fantasy. But I was surprised. First of all, she's an awesome speaker. I'm sure she gets plenty of practice as a professor, but still. She sounded very with-it and approachable.

The basic meat of her talk was that to write a historical (or any book that is not of this time and place), you not only need to have done your research, immersing yourself in the history, social mores, clothing, food, etc. of the era, you need to find what makes you indispensible to a reader of that period. You need to discover what it is you provide to the reader that they don't get elsewhere--that thing that keeps them coming back. To do that, you need to bring something of yourself and of contemporary life to your work. For Ms. James, in part, that means a detailed knowledge of the life and times of Shakespeare (among other things)--and having read some of her novels, there are definite hints of that specialized knowledge.

In writing Unladylike Pursuits, I think I brought a healthy dose of sarcasm and a love of the historical: I wanted to write a book like the ones I'd been reading for years and years. For my next book, it's more than that. This one has a lot of little pieces of me, characters based loosely on people I know or have known, a very familiar setting--a city I lived in myself, and a heroine with mostly male friends, to name a few. This all sounds very much like writing what you know. And it is. But to write a historical, 'what you know' comes from research; it's what's available to everyone. So to put a fresh spin on your story, find inspiration in your own life, current events, or even pop culture, and then overlay that idea or theme onto your research to create a truly unique approach.

I thought her talk was wonderful, but I think I'm not explaining it well here. If you have a chance, I'd recommend you give it a listen. Otherwise, just try to find your unique perspective on life and overlay it on the world you're creating. Now you know why I don't give talks.


Catherine Avril Morris said...

I think you explained it very well! I don't know if I'd be able to label the special thing I bring to my readers so well, either. I'm gonna start thinking about it, though. (I think it's important for all writers, not just writers of historicals.)

Sounds like that was a really good talk.

shelley said...

It sounds like a great talk. When I think about my favorite historical writers they have done something different and that's what makes me love their books.

Sally Lawton said...

Loved the blog Alyssa, I'm definitely planning on ordering a copy of your book when I get back off my hols :-)


susanhatler said...

Interesting summary, Alyssa. Unique spins make the best reads.

Barrie said...

How smart of you to listen to talks on craft! Thank you for the summary.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

I agree, Catherine. All writers need to find their 'something-special'.

And how sweet of you, Sally!

Alyssa Goodnight said...

Thanks for visiting, Shelley and Susan!