Truth in History

Like what seems to be the bulk of the internet this past weekend, I watched Hamilton on Disney+. And, as will come as a surprise to precisely no one who has ever met me in real life, my husband and I then spent much longer than is healthy picking apart the history behind the play. Now, first things first, I am a fan of the musical. I bought the soundtrack back in 2015 and memorized it all. I spent way too much to go see the performance at the Kennedy Center when it was in D.C. Nitpicking the history wasn’t at all about trying to tear the play down, it was about analyzing the creative choices. There is no doubt that Lin Manuel Miranda is familiar with his topic. Like most (if not all) historical fiction writers, he fully immersed himself in his era (even getting to write at one of Hamilton’s desks at a historical site in New York—proving that there are perks to being a famous writer over the rest of us doing the bulk of our research through commercially published works and whatever we can Google/find online).

The 9 Most Interesting Things We Learned From "Hamilton's America ...
(Pictured: Not where most of us get to write our historical fiction)
By PBS, “Hamilton’s America” screenshot

Since history does not often conform itself to a perfect narrative, however, the fiction part of historical fiction sometimes does take necessity and leads to little (or sometimes big) cheats to tell the story you’re trying to tell. And so, Hamilton becomes a great example of how things sometimes have to give when you’re digging a great historical fiction out actual history.

For example:

Timelines get compressed (or changed entirely):

One of the cardinal pieces of writing advice often given in writing classes is “if it doesn’t serve a purpose, cut it.” When it comes to telling a story, every scene should be propelling your narrative and characters, be that providing new information, taking the characters closer to (or farther from) their goal, or building characterization. Unfortunately, history generally isn’t kind enough to do the same. Especially in the past, things took time to happen. There were weeks between letters being sent and delivered, people would go home to plant their fields before eventually returning to finish whatever “more important” action they started months ago… all in all, a bunch of “actual life” stuff gets in the way of a narrative arc. For that reason, historical fiction often trims the time it takes between events or sometimes even rearranges when specific events happen. The play Hamilton has a bit of a leg up in messing with the timeline in that it can paint with a very broad brush with time passing (when exactly did Hamilton get this letter? Well, it’s sometime between the Battle of Yorktown (1781) and the Constitutional Convention (1787)… pick a time) but even with that, it is still possible to pick out places where the timeline has been rearranged for storytelling. 

American Revolution Timeline
“Yeah, I think I can trim this down to two hours…”
twinkl.com

A good example of this is the song Farmer Refuted. For this song, Miranda uses a common historical fiction “trick” where he takes writing from the actual historical record and then translates it into action on the stage/page. Unsurprisingly, Samuel Seabury did write an actual “Free Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress”, from which his lines in the song are taken. Hamilton then wrote a response (two, in fact, since the play is correct in that he was never one for moderation in his writing) which he titled (any guesses?) “The Farmer Refuted”. I particularly like this example as it encapsulates both compressing the timeline and rearranging it. As these were pamphlets and responses written back and forth, obviously there was a lot more time necessary for this exchange than the few minutes shown on the stage where Hamilton literally steps onto Seabury’s soapbox and talks over him. These pamphlets were also written in 1774 and 1775 respectively, placing them solidly before the “1776, New York City” time and place setting given in Aaron Burr, Sir, which is five songs ahead of Farmer Refuted in the play. Since the entire narrative point of Farmer Refuted, though, is to show Hamliton’s bombastic approach to speaking his beliefs (setting up the dichotomy between him and his foil, Burr) and progress the story toward the actual fighting of the revolution, Miranda took these earlier works and transposed them into a single exchange that makes his intended point in a narratively interesting way that the actual timing would not have allowed for. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda is Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odom, Jr. is Aaron Burr in HAMILTON, the filmed version of the original Broadway production.
dtcimedia.com

Similarly, events are rearranged to fit in (spoilers for actual history?) Philip Hamilton’s death. In actual history, Philip Hamilton died in 1801. Fans of the musical will recognize this date as decidedly after the Election of 1800, which in the play happens in its eponymous song two tracks after Philip’s death in Stay Alive (reprise). This change was narratively necessary, however, as Miranda further compressed the narrative toward the end to remove a lot of the other events that led up to the Hamliton/Burr duel. In actual history, this duel is more closely connected to Burr’s New York gubernatorial campaign than his presidential campaign (which is also the reason Hamliton’s death is in 1804, rather than closer to 1800). Since the condensed narrative for the play would not support dealing with the conflict between Burr, Hamilton, and Jefferson in The Election of 1800 only to then have Philip die and then there be another conflict around an election, Miranda made the decision to move Philip’s death forward to then allow the Election of 1800 to serve the narrative function of both conflicts between our protagonist and antagonist. While in longer works of fiction, such as novels, readers perhaps might not allow quite as broad of changes to be made unremarked, as there is more time to get into nuances, in a time-compressed play or movie especially, joining these events to serve one singular narrative beat that leads to the historically accurate outcome is understandable. 

Characters become symbolic:

Daveed Diggs is Thomas Jefferson in HAMILTON, the filmed version of the original Broadway production.
dtcimedia.com

While watching the Disney+ broadcast, one of the topics that we kept circling back to was Daveed Diggs’s portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. While Diggs does an amazing job with his physicality and character choices (he’s actually one of my favorite performances in the show) the person he is portraying is decidedly not the reserved, almost comically introverted, by many accounts, Thomas Jefferson. Rather than attempting to write an accurate Thomas Jefferson, Miranda wrote a character meant to be the embodiment of Jeffersonian ideas. He needed a quick, engaging way to show the conflicts between the Democratic-Republicans and Federalists in the early Federalist Period, and an accurate, reserved Jefferson would not have been able to match the bombastic energy of Hamilton’s character. Realism was thus once again sacrificed so that the narratively necessary points could be made. While in fiction it is always necessary to have characters feel realistic enough to be engaging as people, when telling a greater historical narrative, characters do often also fall into a symbolic role as well. One character may be a down-on-his-luck tailor but he is also the symbolic “put-upon proletariat” character the reader needs to connect to to get the full impact of the coming revolution or another character may be a charming poet, but she is also the mouthpiece for Romantic Era ideals to be able to show how the world is changing. In this way, Miranda has turned Diggs’s Jefferson into a charismatic symbol of conflicting political ideals rather than gone for anything close to a realistic portrayal of historic Thomas Jefferson. 

Phillipa Soo is Eliza Hamilton, Renée Elise Goldsberry is Angelica Schuyler and Jasmine Cephas Jones is Peggy Schuyler in HAMILTON, the filmed version of the original Broadway production.
dtcimedia.com

Similarly, to serve the romantic subplot of the show, the Angelica Schuyler Miranda has written is a far cry from her historical counterpart. Miranda is on record as saying that he felt Hamilton needed an intellectual equal as a love interest, and thus developed this bittersweet “soulmates who can’t be” relationship between Angelica and Hamilton. Beyond the plainly “factual” errors that building this plot required (Philip Schuyler had eight children, including three sons despite Angelica’s line in Satisfied stating, “My father has no sons so/I’m the one who has to social climb for one”) Miranda also builds a character who is a mental match for his version of Hamilton by giving them a shared dissatisfaction with their lots in life. Unlike other women in the era who were proto-feminists (most notably being perhaps Abigail Adams in her 1776 letter urging her husband to “remember the ladies”) there does not seem to be any real evidence in the historical record that Angelica Schuyler shared the sentiment or would have tried to “compel [Jefferson] to include women in the sequel” of the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”. Rather than being a historically accurate Angelica who, while definitely witty and period-appropriately flirty in some letters, was already married by the time she met Hamilton and seemingly satisfied enough with her life, she becomes the character necessary to build a love triangle for Miranda’s Hamilton. 

Language changes:

Old English, New Influences | National Endowment for the ...
Next, from the creators of Hamliton, a Beowulf rap in the original Old English!
neh.gov

With Hamilton being a rap musical, it is hardly surprising that the language used in it is not period accurate (you mean to tell me not only were the Schuyler sisters not a trio of feminists, but they also wouldn’t have said “Work!”?) but this is something that all historical fiction authors come up against. For any book set before the 18th century, it is more or less understood that the piece of fiction the reader or viewer is digesting is a “translation” much in the same way that a fantasy novel is a “translation” from whatever language would be spoken in that fantasy world. Historical fiction readers/viewers don’t expect to pick up a book set in the middle ages and find something written in Old or Middle English. Similarly, there is a certain level of “suspension of disbelief” with any novel that needs to use more modern equivalents of difficult historical phrases to be understood. Obviously, just like with plays getting more ability to compress events in general, Hamilton gets an extra level of suspension of disbelief with its language than “normal” historical fiction due to it form. However, it also treds that line all historical fiction does of providing a “realistic” experience (including actual lines from “The Farmer Refuted” (Farmer Refuted) “Washington’s Farewell Address” (One Last Time) “The Reynolds Pamphlet” (The Reynolds Pamphlet) and Hamilton and Burr’s letters (Your Obedient Servant)) while also remaining accessible to modern audiences. Much like writing that medieval novel in modern English, Miranda manages to translate moments in history using non-accurate language by finding modern “equivalents”, such as a rap battle rather than an early Federalist cabinet debate, much in the same way that a novelist might need to use the slightly less period-appropriate word “science” instead of “natural philosophy” in a throwaway line of dialogue for it to be easily digestible. Obviously, all historical fiction authors need to know where exactly the line is for their own suspension of disbelief and work to keep their “translations” grounded enough to their own internal logic to not lose readers, but as we can see, if the changes are done well, they can do an amazing job of getting people who have never been interested in a period (or perhaps history in general) hungry in finding out more, and that truly is one of the wonderful things Hamilton has managed to do.

Alexander Hamilton: Ron Chernow: 9780143034759 - Christianbook.com
Penguin Books

For those who are interested in the actual history of these characters and events, I strongly suggest picking up some non-fiction, such as Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, which gave Miranda his idea for the show to start with and seeing for yourself what the musical Hamilton does and doesn’t change. For those who are interested in writing historical fiction, I strongly suggest doing so as well, even if it’s just to be able to fully dissect what Miranda decided to keep and what he decided to change to build a tight, engaging narrative. I will not attempt to argue that every choice was perfect or if he should or shouldn’t have used such broad strokes in places (there are many pieces out there that have done much more justice to those arguments than I could in this short blog post), but if you—like I previously have—are currently caught up trying to balance history with fiction, this musical truly is a great study to at least get your feet wet with what changes may or may not work in your own narratives.

Interested in more historical fiction? The Stars of Heaven available August 18th, 2020.

Historical Naming

Interesting question today: “When writing historical fiction, do you have a hard time coming up with names? Is there a list of when particular personal names were first used? I have written some fiction that is historical and I’m worried the use of a name or names that were unknown in that period might put some people off because of the inaccuracy.

I have written before about how names can be astoundingly important to how both authors and readers respond to characters in stories. It makes complete sense that having a “Neveah” and “McKenzie” wandering around Elizabethan England would be a problem.

Luckily writers have a few resources for looking for “historically accurate” names:

1. BehindtheName.com: One of my favorite sites for finding names in general, behindthename.com (and its sister site surnames.behindthename.com) is a great resource when trying to find appropriate names for historical characters. With popularity lists reaching back to 1880 (with John and Mary topping the charts), you can very easily find names that would suit a story based in the Victorian era forward (it even lists just how popular the names were at the time: 8.15% of boys born were named John and 7.24% of girls named Mary, for example).

behindthename.com

behindthename.com

For earlier names, you have to do a little more digging, but by looking up specific names you can find out about the history of a name, including first origin, famous bearers, and popularity charts (see above). For example, for ‘Mary’ you’ll find:

In England [Mary] has been used since the 12th century, and it has been among the most common feminine names since the 16th century.

For a name like ‘Jessica’, however, you’ll find:

This name was first used in this form by Shakespeare in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (1596), where it belongs to the daughter of Shylock … It was not commonly used as a given name until the middle of the 20th century.

So where you would be more than safe naming a character “Mary” in the middle of the War of the Roses, “Jessica” is probably better suited for a character born in the 1980s or 1990s (#1 or #2 for most popular name from 1981 – 1997).

2. Historical Figures: If you are writing historical fiction you have most likely (hopefully) done some research into the time period. While doing that sort of reading, you have likely come across people who were important to the time period. For example, following the Elizabethan/Tudor example, you might see Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Edward VI, Katherine Parr, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, Walter Raleigh…and the list goes on and on and on. It is therefore reasonable to assume that you are “time period appropriate” using any of those given names in the time period.

Edward VI--meaning there had already been six other kings with his name by the 1500s.

Edward VI–meaning there had already been five other kings with his name by the 1500s.

If you are interested in genealogy/have done any family research, it is also possible to use your own family tree for inspiration. If you have an ancestor named “Samuel” who fought in the Civil War, you’re likely safe making your 1860’s character’s name ‘Samuel’.

3. Historical Records: Assuming you are writing about a time period that includes a written language/has some “primary source” documents surviving, you are likely to be able to find names off censuses/tax rolls/etc. The more “modern” the time period, the simpler it will be to find these sorts of records (for example, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 1940 Census records in 2012 for interested parties), but it is possible to find things like the 1319 London Subsidy Roll online which will provide you with names such as Johannes (“John”) and Thomas which were both highly popular in London at the time.

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

(Note: Sources I have easily found online do tend to be highly euro-centric, but as long as you are writing about a “record-keeping” society you should be able to find something [i.e. it will be easier to find records from England or China than it will from nomadic groups]).

4. Figure out naming conventions: This is another one your previous research will aid in, but if you are looking for names on Behind the Name (or another similar site) this should help point you in the right direction. It’s just about following trends. For example, naming oneself after royalty/the ruling class has always been popular, thus you will find more children born after the Norman Conquest with French-based names (from watching how many King Henrys and Charleses there are in both England and France early on, you can see the name bleed-over). Similarly, Puritans were big fans of “virtue” names (Charity, Mercy, Remembrance…) by picking a virtue name for your fictional character on the Mayflower, your name will fit in without “copying” a famous name.

(Note: It is also important to pay attention to naming conventions when it comes to things such as surnames and name order. Would your characters have patronymic names (Greta Hansdatter, James FitzJames, Phillip son of Coul) a geographic indicator (Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci), their family name first (as it common in many Asian countries), or no second name at all? Those details help with the authenticity of your characters).

As with everything else in historical fiction, research is your friend. As long as you know the time period you’re using, you shouldn’t have a problem coming up with names.

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Writing Shakespeare

As prolific as Shakespeare has proven to be with his plays, most people at least have a passing familiarity with a few of his plays. With Baz Luhrmann and Kenneth Branagh out there, it’s even likely many have seen at least one of Shakespeare’s plays performed more or less with its original dialogue–even if some have guns in them.

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!

Alive, in triumph! and Mercutio slain! Away to heaven, respective lenity, and fire-eyed fury be my conduct now!
(photo: Romeo+Juliet [1996])

While Shakespeare has been adapted and re-adapted in just about every setting possible at this point, the language is still a sticking point for many readers. This exposure to what sometimes is mistakenly referred to as “Old English” (Shakespeare wrote in “Early Modern English” much more understandable than true Old English), many times seem to give writers who wish to set a story in Tudor England the feeling that they need to break out the prithees and thous (and perhaps try to figure out how the heck to write in iambic pentameter) if they are going to be “accurate”.

The first time I received a question about how to properly do X-time period language in writing, I admit I was a bit confused. Having grown up on a steady diet of historical fiction as a child, I’d never considered having to make someone “sound” 16th century in a novel by going so far as to write in Early Modern English. It makes sense to some extent (you wouldn’t have someone in 1620’s Massachusetts saying “cool” or “what’s up”) but there is certainly a difference between refraining from using modern slang and trying to get your PhD in Renaissance Literature so you’re able to properly use Elizabethan phrasing.

Have your PhD and want to write in historically accurate language? Awesome, that sort of rocks. Just find the time period fascinating and want to write a story about it after doing non-PhD-level linguistics research? Don’t drive yourself crazy.

You see, the main reason Early Modern English finds itself questioned so much when it comes to this set up is that it is a version of English that is obviously different, but still possible to understand. Writing in it is not outside the realm of possibility, so some authors feel like a fraud not even trying.

But then, if you’re writing a book set in ancient Rome, do you have to write it in Latin? If your characters are from China, do you have to write in Chinese? Do you have to come up with an entirely new language for your aliens who would obviously not speak English on their home planet?

Of course not.

Creative fiction comes built in with a very handy tool for writers–suspension of disbelief. To a certain extent, the reader is willing to believe what you (the author) say is true simply because you say so. There are dragons in your world? Sure, let’s read about them. There’s no such thing as a smart phone? Sure, why not. You have to be careful to stay within the set rules of your universe and not strain/break that suspension of disbelief, but it is a very handy tool.

Language works the same way. Would someone born and raised in China likely speak English everywhere they go? No. Does that mean you can’t write that story until you become fluent in Chinese? Again, no. As we have been trained to do since before most of us would be able to even really think about it, suspension of disbelief allows the reader to assume that the novel is a modern-English translation of whatever your characters would likely be speaking. You can easily break this disbelief by throwing in too-modern language in historical pieces, but you by no means have to learn some different dialect just because you are writing historical fiction. And that really is for a few reasons.

1. Suspension of disbelief covers you.

As I said above, people aren’t going to condemn your WWII story for not being written in Polish when that’s your setting. They aren’t going to condemn you for not writing in Early-Modern English for a Tudor period piece. Just keep the modern slang out of it, and it is assumed your work is a “translation”.

2. You’re more than likely going to get something wrong and be more distracting.

Unless you are a linguistics protege/actually did get your PhD and are now fluent in the vocabulary and syntax of whatever time period you’re setting your story in, trying to make your characters sound Shakespearean is just going to make the dialogue stilted, and annoying to people who might be more familiar in the usage (that’s not how you use thou!) You will end up with better writing writing as you are comfortable.

3. It makes it easier for your audience to read.

As well-remembered as Shakespeare is, there are still plenty of people who just “don’t get it” and thus don’t especially like struggling through the Elizabethan language while attempting to follow along. Perhaps you know all the nuances, perhaps you don’t, you still have cut your possible readership down to people who understand Early-Modern English/don’t mind muddling through. Generally your sales will thank you not to do so.

And so, don’t worry too much about what your characters would actually speak when you’re writing, even when writing historical fiction. Worry about not throwing someone out of the time period altogether with modern slang. As long as you are careful about that, you’re in good shape.

(Note: When it comes to using a word that you feel might sound too “modern” I highly suggest looking at etymonline.com. An online etymological source, it has the historical usage of most words in its database. So can you use the word “crazy” to describe the man yelling about the world ending outside the Globe Theatre? Etymonline says if it’s after 1570, yes if you mean “diseased, sickly” or after 1610 to mean (the more modern usage) “of unsound mind, or behaving as so”).

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