Historical Fiction: A Conversation with my Clients’ Favorite Editor, Lori Handelman

    lorihandelmanLori 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.

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    1. Hi Lori. Love the post. I read somewhere that the ‘high class’ people in the 1800s South didn’t use contractions when they spoke, only the lower class used them. Is this true?

    2. Hi Stephy,

      What a good question; class differences in the South are quite pronounced to the ear, but it’s really an accumulation of subtle effects. I haven’t read that, about the different uses of contractions, but it certainly seems possible. Higher class people in the South spoke (and speak!) with a greater degree of precision, compared to people from lower classes. They also tended not to drop their g’s, but instead they actually placed a fuller emphasis on those endings — washing vs washin’.

      Good luck with your writing!

    3. Lori, do you often encounter the opposite problem with historical fiction? By that I mean manuscripts in which the research has been done but now the author cannot cut out details that detract from the story? I know there’s a balance between getting the setting right and telling a good story, so I wonder if you encounter a lot of books that the details overwhelm the narrative. Thanks for an informative post.

    4. Hi Louis,

      Oh, absolutely! And I get it: after doing all that work, and learning all those fascinating bits of information, it can be hard to let go of them. Writers sometimes lose the forest in their efforts to describe and plant all the trees. That’s a big part of my work as an editor, cutting and pruning and clearing out the messy undergrowth. This is an issue for all kinds of writing, of course, not just historical fiction. Whether I’m editing a memoir, a piece of fiction, or a monograph on a topic in psychology, my most common task is to help writers get rid of the bloat so their stories can emerge. Thanks for the excellent question!

    5. As you have mentioned, writers of historical fiction need to get rid of the bloat. My favorite author James A. Michener, had monumental amounts of detail, and I loved every single word, and have read his books many times.

      How does one manage to include their research which they think is necessary (like that which for Michener, added such rich details) and not bore the reader?

    6. P.J., that’s the million dollar question — what’s too much, what’s the essential detail, what is bloat. Brilliant writers break every rule, and this reminds me of the Supreme Court decision about pornography — you know it when you see it. Similarly with research and the concept of bloat. Michener made worlds come alive with all the detail and research he wove into his stories, and I agree with you, I loved every single word.

      Perhaps one issue is not whether to include a bit of research, but where to include it. Occasionally when I’m editing a manuscript, research seems wedged into place and makes itself visible. “Look at me! I know this fact!” But I usually see a different place in the story where it fits more elegantly, and disappears into the background. I love moments like that.

    7. Most of my research does not see the page. However, it does influence my writing. It does help me form ideas about the story. I guess you can say that much is invisible, or behind the text. I really only draw attention to something historical if it is relevant to my characters or in some way moves the story forward.

    8. I have finished my novel about the period just before the Civil War and twenty years after. It is about a young man’s search for self understanding and indenence from a difficult childhood in the territory of Kansas. I would like to find a reader who loves American history to read it and give me feedback. My editor only gave me vague suggestions and I cannot go on paying someone who does not stick with me to tell me what needs to be done. Jim

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