The hardest thing about writing historical fiction is presenting the past in an understandable way.
It’s easy to describe and explain the past in historical non-fiction. You can say whatever you want, as long as you believe it’s true. The results may be dry, and they certainly won’t be as evocative as great fiction, but there’s no need to explain why you’re explaining.
In fiction it’s different. Especially in modern fiction, where the most common points of view are third person limited and first person, there are limits on what you can explain. A viewpoint character will take their period in time for granted. They won’t wonder why things are how they are, comment on it, or explain it to themselves.
Getting Around the Voice Problem
Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book neatly gets around this.
In its marketing and the framing of the story, this is science fiction. An academic travels back in time to the 14th century. After the transport goes wrong, her colleagues are left trying to retrieve her while facing a modern epidemic. The novel alternates between distant past and near future.
But while this hefty book spends a lot of time in its near future, that never feels like the most important part. What makes it distinctive is the experienced of medieval England. The period is brilliantly evoked, not through great historical events but through everyday life. How people work, live, laugh, love, and sometimes suffer is all shown. Because the viewpoint character comes from the future, she observes details that are important to readers, not those important to the people of the time. She becomes our intermediary, explaining the past and bringing it to life.
The sci-fi construct also helps bring the issues of the 14th century alive through parallels. The challenges and heartbreaks of the epidemic in the 21st century happen in a setting closer to readers’ own lives. That makes them more immediately comprehensible, driving home the point of how people experience such crises. They hit you in the feels.
Those thoughts and feelings are then carried over to the medieval parts, as disease strikes in a very different setting. Differences and similarities are shown by the parallel lives.
Great Historical Fiction
Only half of this book is historical fiction, and even that half is compromised in its accuracy by the presence of the time traveller. Yet once you accept her presence as necessary to enhance our experience, the rest comes vividly to life. This is some of the best historical fiction I’ve ever read – engaging and evocative without needing to use big names or big action to keep readers interested.
As a student of 14th century history, I can get very picky about how the period’s depicted. At first glance, it seems strange that a sci-fi story has become my favourite depiction of the era. But that story does a breathtaking job of bringing a period I’m passionate about to life, without ever breaking the believability of a viewpoint. Maybe it’s not so surprising after all.
If you’re passionate about the medieval past, you like time travel stories, or you enjoy slow, rich work like that of Guy Gavriel Kay, then I totally recommend Doomsday Book.
Oh, but try not to read the back cover blurb. My copy contained a massive spoiler there. It didn’t stop me enjoying the book, but it robbed me of a great reveal.