August 18th, 2005


Being "true to the past."

I finished reading through and taking notes on a very large book last night, The Book of Philadelphia, by Robert Shackleton, published in 1918. You can read some of the chapters here, though not "South of Market Street," the one I was reading last night.

As I mentioned before, I found myself disturbed by the casual racism throughout, and also the classism, which is almost as egregious (I say almost because at least he doesn't use slurring nicknames for the working class, as he does for Black people). I am writing a historical novel set during this period. Were I to be "true to history," I ought to include these attitudes in my characters and make them inherent in my setting. Right?

Wrong. Not for me.

Not just because to make myself think like that, even to produce a fictional character, makes me a little sick. I'm sure I have enough inherent -isms already, I don't need to add to them. That's a personal reason.

The real reason is I don't think being "true to history" in a historical novel is necessary in all cases. My novel is mostly a romance, true, and people sometimes say that too many gritty historical details can throw them out of the fantasy. But that's not why, either. It's because though my novel is set in the past, I'm really writing about now. I can't help it. I was born in this time, and have grown up in it, and I can't fool myself that if someone from 1920 came along and read my book, they would be in the least fooled.

I don't think we can escape our own time. We can make a good stab at it. Or we can, like I am doing, use that historical setting as an sf/f writer uses the world they've created, as a setting for a certain story that they want to tell.

And if that means I throw some readers out of the story with my lack of gritty realism, so be it. They can go read The Book of Philadelphia.