C. P. Lesley, a historian, is the author of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and three series: Legends of the Five Directions, Songs of Steppe & Forest, and the Tarkei Chronicles. She hosts New Books in Historical Fiction, a podcast channel on the New Books Network. Her most recent book is Song of the Sisters.
The past, as someone famously noted, is a foreign country—one that operates by its own rules, more or less different from ours depending on how far we travel into its thickets and how wide the seas we cross to get there. Even the maps and guidebooks are written by people who either did not experience that foreign country firsthand or did not experience it as “foreign,” because they shared the assumptions and rules that determined its structure.
Both historians and historical novelists have to cope with what we might call the “alienness” of the past. But novelists must deal with an additional constraint: fiction has to appeal to the present, as well as faithfully (to the extent that’s possible) replicate times gone by. And as we know from recent decisions to demote various once-respected politicians and statesmen, standards change over time. Many of our ancestors were unapologetically racist, sexist elitists who engaged in behaviors that now qualify as abuse—even if, at the time, they considered themselves ladies and gentlemen or knights in shining armor, far more deserving of privilege than the rest of us.
A few examples of such behaviors and attitudes can provide historical context—a reminder, perhaps, that, however far we sometimes fall from our own ideals, we have moved beyond that. But few modern readers, in my experience, want to devote their moments of relaxation and escape from real life to passive, downtrodden heroines or brutish heroes, however true to their times those characters may be. There’s a reason why The Bridgertons is wildly popular on Netflix, whether its racially integrated cast accurately reflects life in Regency England (it doesn’t, but so what?) or not.
How does a novelist conjure the past without getting snared by it? Research, of course, but research can become its own kind of trap. Readers want details, but the right details—snippets that lure them into the fictional world, not pages and pages on the competing claims of Stephen and Maud for the English throne or every step that goes into the creation of a duchess’s dress. Get that balance wrong, and you produce the dreaded “information dump.”
One useful tactic is to intermingle “fish out of water” characters who have a reason to ask questions with characters thoroughly familiar with the historical world and therefore able to supply the answers. Nasan, the heroine of my The Golden Lynx and ultimately of the entire Legends of the Five Directions series, is an example of this approach. She was born in a nomadic horde, raised as a Muslim princess, moved to a city two years before the book begins, and is then married off for the sake of her family to a Russian man whose language she barely speaks.
As a result, her understanding of the rules, written and unwritten, of the society and family into which she’s been thrust—including how a good wife should behave—is based entirely on the life she experienced before her wedding, which overlaps only in part with the reality of her new home. Half the time, she doesn’t even know what questions to ask, but her reactions to what she perceives as the craziness around her, as well as other people’s responses to what they see as the weird things she does and says, tell us quite a lot about the world she came from and the one she struggles to make sense of. Meanwhile, her new husband and his family are striving just as hard to figure out what she needs to learn so they can help her adjust to a life they take for granted.
Contrast that with Darya, the heroine of Song of the Sisters, my latest book. Darya has spent much of her life following the rules for noblewomen in 16th-century Russia—obeying her male relatives, speaking only when spoken to, avoiding all men outside her immediate family, remaining within her own household, yet managing her servants with all the authority conferred on her as the daughter of an aristocratic clan. When we meet her at twenty-five, she has spent seven years in isolation, nursing her elderly father, who suffered from dementia. She regards herself as too old to attract a husband, and as a result she seriously considers joining a convent. She is, at one level, the ultimate insider—but the unplanned twist caused by her long separation from society forces her to confront questions she never expected to ask, turning her, too, into something of an outsider. And when a long-lost cousin shows up out of the blue and threatens her livelihood and her future, Darya has to plumb resources she didn’t know she possessed to save herself.
Is she typical of her time? In some ways, I suspect she is. The passive medieval woman has always been more of a fantasy than a reality. Her cousin might well have been meaner—although he’s pretty mean, as antagonists can be in ways that heroes and heroines have to avoid if they’re to remain sympathetic. But pulling for a meek, compliant Darya to succeed would hard for a modern reader (and for me, a modern author), so I chose to make her deference an element of her past that she overcomes in the course of the novel.
And so it goes. As novelists, we can draw on history for sensory details, dramatic background incidents, transportation and household equipment, social ladders and cultural figures, settings and costumes and plots. We can, if we put some thought into it, reveal the automatic thinking that underlies the specific emotional responses of our imaginary people; the causes of anger and shame, for example, shift over time, although the emotions themselves are universal. But characters must be both complex and timeless if they are to appeal to modern readers. That’s how you conjure the past.