Weaving the Fiction Motif
Most Indians writing historical fiction either about India or elsewhere are from abroad. Few writers based in India write historical fiction. I have always wondered why given our rich historical heritage. Maybe it is due to the dynamics of national critique to any narrative related to Indian History, especially in the present-day scenario. Look at the backlash that historical films suffer. Other than this, creating historical fiction seems to involve a great deal of research. Probably, that makes most writers shy away from it. Well, I cannot say that they are wrong, but I have found the entire effort well worth by the time the tale is told. However, before I discuss the process, I would like to clarify exactly what the genre of historical fiction entails.
What is Historical Fiction?
Simply explained, it is fiction with a setting in the past or a story based on hard historical facts. However, with the profusion of mythological fiction around, a lot of readers confuse the two genres. Mythological fiction is rooted in or inspired by themes or symbolism of myths, legends, folklore and fairy tales. Sometimes it may cross into fantasy fiction. According to the renowned interpreter of Indian scriptures, Devdutt Pattanaik, ‘Mythological fiction …..is fantasy rooted in familiar traditional tales.’ Thus, both the genres are as different as chalk is to cheese.
Exploration of historical fiction
One can explore historical fiction through several venues. It could be a story based on the life of a historical figure or based in a particular era or a tale with the backdrop of a specific political or social or religious event or movement. So, the first choice that writers of historical fiction need to make is to decide what they want to explore by writing historical fiction.
Once that choice is made, next comes delving into the historical facts available. Be it the life of a famous person or a historical period or an event, the writer would want to reveal to the readers how the personage or the people living in the period or during the event responded to their environment. To understand and analyse these reactions one has to dig deep into the subject and research it thoroughly. There are various means of finding out primary or secondary data. One can read up print books on the subject and period, download PDFs of books, check out online references and images, visit the actual site of the story or event, watch documentaries or feature films on the subject, discuss with historians or experts on the subject. The more the analysis and study, the better grounded is the writer’s eventual narrative.
Sighting the premise
Usually, through this painstaking exercise of going through a gamut of sources and analyzing them, we discover gems. Willy-nilly the premise to hang one’s fiction on emerges from this study. Once you read the grains of rice, a certain pattern will appear. When that happens, it is only a matter of time before one discerns the gaps in the pattern. History being an examination of evidence, often blank spaces are left in historical accounts. Sometimes one may find alternate interpretations of the same evidence. These become gold nuggets for the writers of fiction. They can link these breaches with fictitious narrative. Done judiciously and skillfully the fiction becomes so well-embedded into the authenticated facts that it may begin to seem a part of the historical account. It is my strong belief that if the historical fiction is not tied up closely to the substantiated facts on the subject, it runs the risk of no longer remaining a historical fiction. It crosses the line into fantasy.
Cannot read like a dry academic account
However, the writer has to be very careful that the historical fiction does not turn into a treatise because the readers expect the fiction to be a tale ‘full of sound and fury’. They want to absorb themselves into the lives of the characters and the nuances of the plot. They will not take kindly to an academic litany. This is a fine line that a historical fiction writer must walk. The writer has to bring to life the historical figure, the era or event by manipulating the facts related to the historical interpretations and yet, avoid boring the reader.
Writing effective historical fiction is a lot of effort and one must put one’s shoulder to the wheel to churn out a narrative that will capture the hearts and imagination of one’s readers. In my renditions, I have focused on creating a fine silken thread that weaves in and out of a robust fabric of facts. This embroidery of delicate motifs forms the pattern of my historical fiction. I tread very lightly for one cannot really change indisputable history however much fascinating a tale you tell.
Sutapa Basu is the best-selling author of Padmavati, The Queen Tells Her Own Story (2017, pub Readomania), a historical fiction. She has authored a psychological thriller, Dangle (2016, pub Readomania) and her second historical fiction, The Legend of Genghis Khan will be released on 20th September this year. A poet, author, publishing consultant, she is the 2016 First Prize winner of the Times of India’s Write India Campaign for Amish Tripathi.
She has had a professional career of over thirty years teaching, publishing and training trainers. As Editorial Manager at Oxford University Press, Publishing Director at Encyclopedia Britannica, South Asia and an Army wife she has travelled widely in India and abroad. She has designed and supervised production of more than 400 books, digital and online educational products.
Her short stories have appeared in anthologies, Crossed & Knotted, Defiant Dreams, When They Spoke and Write India Stories. Her poems have appeared in Kaafiyana and The Dawn Beyond Waste. Her published articles, stories and poems can be read on TOI Blog, Café Dissensus, New York, Muse India, Readomania and other print and e-magazines. She has also authored several educational textbooks and a lot of children’s fiction. Find her works on her website www.storyfuntastika.com & www.readomania.com.