Friday, 7 June 2013

Historical vs Contemporary Fiction

Writing modern day fiction vs. writing historical fiction… which is easier? I’ve been pondering this question recently, especially as I have published two Regency novels as well as a modern/chick lit novel. Writing historical novels is far less hazardous than writing modern stories, I believe. Hazardous might be an odd choice of word, but for me writing a modern day story is a dangerous enterprise. You see - I cannot resist putting real people into my stories. When I write an historical novel, it’s easy to for me to disguise my characters. Great Aunt Sue is far less likely to recognise herself if she is dressed in a dramatic floor length gown with her hair swept off her face in my historical novel than if she is dressed in a skirt and blouse, and her rather scuffed brown shoes in my chick lit novel.

It’s not that I consciously look for real people to base my characters on - it’s just that when I’m writing a book, more often than not, someone I know - usually someone with an idiosyncrasy of some kind or other pops in to my head, and I think, “Oh - she’ll be PERFECT for the role of Jane or Sarah or Angela” and I promptly put them into my story. Usually a character who has been inspired by a real life person will take on a life of his or her own, once they’re within the pages of one of my novels, and often they change in quite noticeable ways, sometimes beyond recognition. But the fact remains that when you base a character on one of your friends or acquaintances, there’s always the chance that the person you’ve based the character on will find you out…

However, I’ve noticed that some people are quite pleased at the idea of being a character in a book - particularly if that character is the hero or heroine. It’s the secondary characters that I worry about more i.e. the best friend of the heroine, who wears too much makeup, for instance, and is always in trouble with men, or the heroine’s goofy male friend who complains to her about his lack-lustre love life, or alternatively, the charming bad boy who breaks hearts wherever he goes, or the bossy colleague who’s always telling everyone what to do. We all recognise these people, and it’s the most natural thing in the world that they should flavour the pages of a modern day story. And so I walk through a minefield when I write my chick lit stories, hoping that my characters (based on real people) are not too recognisable.

When I spoke to my editor about this, she set my mind at rest. In my chick lit novel, Send and Receive, I have based a number of the characters on people I know. When my editor commented that a certain character in the book reminded her of an acquaintance of hers, I explained to her that the character she was referring to was actually based on someone I know (I even wondered if my editor and I might have a friend in common). And when she commented on how another character bore a striking resemblance to one of her friends, I explained that that character was based on a friend of mine.

Finally my editor said to me, “Alissa - the characters in your books are people we all know,” and that is when I realised that my guilty secret wasn’t so bad after all. All fiction writing should try and capture the universal in the particular to some extent, and if you succeed in doing that, then it’s possible to reach a point where you realise that writing about individuals isn’t so individual after all. The common thread of humanity that binds us to together is universal in its reach, and the girl who lives next door to you might very well resemble the girl who lives next door to someone who lives thousands of miles away.

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