What about Historical Fiction?

In the revious post, we explored two valuable sources of information: the ATU Index and D.L. Ashliman’s Folktexts. both of which help you find families of folktales. Understanding these families can help you find the bones of a story. Now we are going to look at how all this works in historical fiction. Of course, it’s not exactly the same.

Before we get started, and in keeping with my goal to have a story with every post, here is another folktale from 15 Pounds of Muscle and Bounce. We’ve been talking about Trolls, which are, as far as I can tell, an entirely Norwegian phenomenon. This story will introduce you to a less frightening supernatural critter, one from Iceland.

Kidhaus is one of the Huldufolk or “hidden people. Iceland still makes decisions on the basis of not disturbing or upsetting their rock-dwelling neighbors.

Now on to Historical Fiction

The relationship between details and bones in historical fiction is somewhat more complex than the one in folktales. As we have seen, the bones of the folktales are the structural element that make the story what it is. Details can be changed or added at will. Changing the bones changes the story.

There are bones in historical fiction. When I was a teenager devouring books about Tudor England, I would have said that the bones were the history – what actually happened. That is not quite the case. There undoubtedly was an actually happened involved, but we don’t have it. We have what people who saw, heard about, reported, shaped, re-shaped, and wrote left for us. And every one of these people had a definite stake in the outcome of these events. So we have bones but they are not entirely solid ones.

Let’s expand on this by looking at Henry VIII and one of his six wives. For some reason, I’ve always liked Ann of Cleves better than I’ve liked any of the other wives. (And pace Retha Warnicke whose Tudor History class I took at ASU all those years ago – I get that each and every one of the women who married Henry was doing exactly what her culture expected her to do – to marry to the advantage of her family. The bride’s opinions and feelings were irrelevant.)

The variety in the books came from the different sources the authors chose to use. This leaves us with two very different views Henry’s fourth wife, the second divorced one. Did she come to England to marry Henry, (after another princess had said she would be glad to do so, if only she had two necks) as a plain, even unattractive girl who was rather stupid – and had never learned to speak any of the languages Henry spoke? Was she not only uneducated, but neither clever or witty? Was she terrified when Henry, who was disgusted by her, sought to get rid of not only his wife, but the Protestant-leaning advisors who had arranged the marriage.

Or … was she actually quite pretty? The portrait the artist Hans Holbein painted before her marriage – the one Henry insisted on seeing before making his decision – shows a young woman who is rather solemn and stiff, but her face would certainly pass as attractive in this, the contemporary world. Some sources claim that Henry believed that Holbein omitted the small pox scars on her face. If this were true, it must be pointed out that small pox was exceedingly common at the time, and so were the scars.

The famous portrait -Anne doesn’t look too bad.

Was she perhaps intelligent, and clever enough to realize she could manage the failure of the marriage in such a way that she could avoid returning to her brother’s dull and stifling court? She was certainly smart enough to avoid death.

Again, what are details, and what are bones? I think the bones can be find where most contemporary chroniclers agree. In Anne’s case, we do know she came from a small and Protestant German Duchy. If we look at Anne through Retha Warnicke’s lens, we can assume that her marriage to the King of England would have been a professional triumph. Had the marriage been a success, Anne’s family would have greatly benefitted. But, as the chroniclers agree, Henry was disappointed if not downright disgusted with his bride from the very beginning.

Here the details vary. Henry is said to have made a surprise visit to his bride as soon as she landed in England. Since Ann spoke no English and was still recovering from a rough channel crossing, she did not impress him in the least. It is also said that he was already interested in the girl who became his fifth wife, so he was not the least likely to be impressed by anybody.

We can play the same game will all these details all the way through Ann’s life. When we look at the bones we find this: she outlived her marriage (no small thing, that). She stayed in England as the king’s “beloved sister” instead of returning to her brother’s Duchy. She outlived Henry and was friendly with all his children. Henry had called her a “Flanders Mare.” He was wrong.

In this post we thought about how bones and details also matter when it comes to historical fiction. The details can be fun. The bones always matter. In the next post, we will dig into what we need to know use the details effectively. Hint – it’s called research.In this post we thought about how bones and details also matter when it comes to historical fiction. The details can be fun. The bones always matter.

In this post we thought about how bones and details also matter when it comes to historical fiction. The details can be fun. The bones always matter. In the next post, we will dig into what we need to know use the details effectively. Hint – it’s called research.

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