Today I'm happy to welcome Shana Mlawski to the blog to talk about why she loves and writes historical fiction novels.
Why Historical Fiction?
by Shana Mlawski
Why do we write historical fiction? Why do we love it?
I was excited when Jessica raised these questions on the Twitters, because historical fiction – more specifically, historical fantasy – is my genre, and I looove talking about it. But the more I tried to answer, the more complicated the questions seemed.
Why do I like historical fiction?
Well, what kind of historical fiction do you mean?
Recently there's been some great discussion on the Lee & Low blog about “mirror books” and “window books.” A mirror book shows readers people like themselves, while a window book shows people from a completely different background. Readers, especially young readers, need both kinds of fiction so they can both affirm themselves and understand others.
The more I think about it, the more I think this distinction should apply to works of historical fiction as well. When we read “window” historical fiction, we peer through the panes of time to see a culture that is in many respects alien to us. This type of fiction is rife with sensory details – lush descriptions of olde tyme clothing, foodstuffs, politics, smells. The authors of window historical fiction don't want us to simply enjoy a story. They want us to be there.
Consider one of my faves, Clan of the Cave Bear. Jean Auel loaded that book with so many details that by the time I finished reading it I didn't just know what Neanderthals were like in the Stone Age; I was confident I could make my own hand-ax from scratch. That's window historical fiction in a nutshell.
In contrast, “mirror” historical fiction holds up a mirror to modern times. It cares less about showing us what life was like Back Then and more about showing us what we're like Right Now. In this kind of fiction, history becomes a land of symbol, a secondary world as fantastic as Oz.
The Diviners is a great example of a literary mirror. As rich in period detail as its Roaring Twenties setting is, no one, I think, believes it gives a totally realistic picture of what daily life was like in the 1920s. Even if we disregard the book's paranormal elements, I'm going to go out on a limb and say young people back then probably weren't all flappers, Harlem Renaissance poets, and charming con artists. Rather, author Bray playfully and masterfully deploys archetypes we associate with the era to say something about the conflicts between good and evil, tradition and modernity, materialism and spirituality – conflicts we're dealing with now in 2013.
We can see the distinction between mirror and window fiction in the movies, too. This year, the naturalistic Lincoln acted as a window into the Civil War era, while the more exaggerated Django Unchained (set in roughly the same time period) acted as a funhouse mirror. We call both these films “historical fiction,” but I'm thinking maybe they don't belong the same genre. Window historical fiction is more like realism, except it's set in the past, while mirror historical fiction is closer to allegory.
In any event, I love both kinds for different reasons. I love window stories for the same reason I love stories set on other planets: it's simply cool to be transported to a different place and time. Window stories spark the imagination and remind us that the way things are isn't the way things have to be.
And I'm a huge fan of mirror historical fiction. My debut, Hammer of Witches, lives firmly on the other side of the looking glass, deep in the Land of Mirrordom. Although the book gives readers a reasonably accurate view of life in 1492, ultimately I cared less about the window-dressing and more about telling a story. Did I try to get all the names and dates right? Of course. Did I spend days holed up in the rare books section of the library, reading about 15th century fabrics and footwear? You're darn right, I did. Here, check out my partial Works Cited page.
But what can I tell you? If you set a book in 1492 Spain, the book's going to be about Christopher Columbus, no way around it, and it can't just be about the living, breathing guy. It's got to be about the myth. As historian Matthew Restall says, Columbus “is not a fifteenth-century man, but a nineteeth-century one with a twentieth-century veneer.” Focusing on what Columbus ate and what style of hat he wore would be missing the point. In Hammer of Witches, then, history is less of a place and more of a symbol and a story—and what a powerful story it is.
Shana Mlawski is a native New Yorker, though she's previously lived in Connecticut and Puerto Rico. You may have read one of her many articles or seen one of her popular infographics on the pop culture website OverthinkingIt.com. Show her a video of a kitten or a panda and she will be your friend for life.
Amazon, Goodreads, My website, Twitter, Facebook fan page, Hammer of Witches on Lee & Low's website
BOOK SUMMARY (from Goodreads):
Baltasar Infante can weasel out of any problem with a good story. But when he encounters a monster straight out of stories one night, Baltasar faces trouble even he can’t talk his way out of. Captured by the Malleus Maleficarum, a mysterious witch-hunting arm of the Spanish Inquisition, Baltasar is put to the question. The Inquisitor demands he reveal the whereabouts of Amir al-Katib, a legendary Moorish sorcerer who can bring myths and the creatures within them to life. Now Baltasar must escape, find al-Katib, and defeat a dreadful power that may destroy the world. As Baltasar’s journey takes him into uncharted lands on Columbus’s voyage westward, he learns that stories are more powerful than he once believed them to be—and much more dangerous. Shana Mlawski’s magical debut novel takes a fresh look at one of the pivotal moments in human history.
“An engaging, magical adventure set against the historical backdrop of Columbus’ westward voyage.”
“Stories come alive in this rousing historical fantasy... A fast-paced coming-of-age adventure.”
“A dazzling, richly imagined tale about history, legend, and the fantastic power of story.”
—Diana Peterfreund, author of For Darkness Shows the Stars
“Everything I crave in a story. What a fantastic voyage!”
—Lesley Livingston, author of Wondrous Strange
Shana has been kind enough to offer up a copy of Hammer of Witches to one lucky US follower!
Some Rules (aka the not so fun but important part):
~ This giveaway is open to residents of the US only.
~ No P.O. boxes.
~ Must be 13 or older to enter.
~ Winner will be chosen randomly and contacted via email. The winner has 48 hours to respond to my email, otherwise they forfeit their prize and I will choose another winner, who must abide by the same rules.
~ Neither Shana nor I are not responsible for lost or damaged packages.
~ No cheating! In this case, I have the right to disqualify entries as I see fit.
~ By entering the giveaway, you are agreeing to these rules.
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