Lori Handelman holds a doctorate in psychology from The University of Texas at Austin, and was most recently Senior Acquisitions Editor for Oxford University Press. Her services include manuscript evaluation, proofreading, copyediting, substantive editing, writing consulting, and help with academic papers. From her office in Manhattan, she accepts both fiction and nonfiction.
I asked Lori to talk to us about what she looks for when editing historical fiction. Here’s what she said.
Writers of historical fiction have a mighty task on their hands. They must make a world come vividly alive in sensory detail. Places, especially if they’re well-known, must be depicted accurately (unless the writer’s point is to turn that world on its head). Details of clothing have to be presented correctly. Of course, internet research makes this job much easier; you can do a Google image search for the specific type of clothing, or for photographs of a place at a particular time, and you’re likely to get at least a few hits.
As important as these details are, a critical and more difficult task is to get the characters’ words and minds right. Some verbal anachronisms are easy to spot; people who lived in the late 1800s, in Deadwood, SD, wouldn’t have said awesome, for example. A frequent topic of conversation about the HBO series Deadwood was whether people who lived at that time really used the particular curse words that salted the dialogue. They probably didn’t speak with the Shakespearean streams of words that the writers gave their characters, but the ‘what’ of their conversations felt right to viewers nonetheless.
Aside from specific word choice, getting the characters’ voices right is importantly a function of understanding the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. Different periods are characterized by different sets of concerns, different worries, different ways of understanding why things happen, different ways of explaining how and why people do what they do, different fears, different hopes, different possibilities. On top of this complexity, these aspects may be quite different between cultures, and authors who fail to differentiate their characters’ voices with these unique perspectives will end up with flat cookie-cutter characters.
As an editor, I keep my ear tuned to the characters’ voices and minds. In some cases, I will offer specific information – for instance, a note that wristwatches weren’t commonly worn at the time – but often my best contribution to a work is to identify the psychological anachronisms, the ways in which characters’ concerns and perspectives are too modern, and the ways in which characters are not true to their time, place, and culture. Also, I make sure that the writer’s characters have distinctly different ways of speaking, so a reader knows who’s talking, and knows what to expect from them. In my experience, authors are often so focused on the story, the plot, and getting the historical details just so, that tending to these more subtle qualities can slip past them.
Please comment on the challenges you have found in writing historicals or perhaps leave a question for Lori below.