What makes a bad historical novel
Actually, I've never really been particularly interested in history. What do I care about the old camels? It never occurred to me, therefore, that I could ever become a writer of historical novels. When I found out from the newspaper that this was exactly what I had become - I first got the title in a review of my novel “The Philosopher” - I rubbed my eyes in amazement: Is the reviewer crazy or am I crazy?
The following theses are neither a definition nor an analysis of a literary phenomenon. They don't claim anything, any more than I want to prove anything. They are just a very personal, thoroughly subjective confession: why, despite my lack of interest in history, I write historical novels, and with ever increasing pleasure.
1. A historical novel is not a history book.
And a writer of historical novels is not a historian. Both portray historical events, but with different interests. While the historian tries to reconstruct past times as exactly and realistically as possible, the novelist is primarily interested in the symbolic meaning that he believes he recognizes in a certain historical situation. I therefore regard the visualization of this meaningful content of a historical fact in a new and separate form as my real task. For me, historical reality is not the meaning and purpose of my work, but a quarry: material for a novel.
2. A historical novel is not a popularized science.
Of course, historical novels can and usually do provide education. But is that their primary purpose? Like any novel, a historical novel is above all a game - a game with reality. Basically everything is allowed that increases the attraction of this game - even that which the criminal code forbids. A historical novel therefore does not reproduce historical history, but uses it. Science provides the facts, the narrator fills them with life and meaning.
3. A historical novel is not about history, but about life.
Great stories from history have always fascinated people. Because in all changes in life the decisive driving forces are always the same: love and hate, greed, envy and jealousy, striving for beauty and wealth, for fame and power - all the great feelings and passions that humans are capable of. Because of this, we can empathize with and understand dramas that are thousands of years old. But that alone does not make a story out of the story worth telling. The decisive factor is whether it is still important to us today, whether it reflects us in our own self-image, gives us courage and inspires us for the great adventure of our own life.
4. A historical novel is dramatized life.
The unreached and unattainable role model of every novelist is the Holy Spirit - after all, he wrote the greatest drama that can be imagined: life itself. His dramaturgy is and remains the measure of all things. However, with one caveat: the historical story obeys the laws of reality or the science of history, whereas the story of a novel obeys the laws of storytelling. In order to make it dramaturgical, the chronology of the events as well as some externalities have to be modified here and there in detail. Not out of a lack of respect for the facts, but in order to create a self-contained narrative circle and to place the historical events in a context of meaning that captures the forces inherent in them and at the same time points beyond the historical circumstances in which they are integrated.
5. A historical novel is a realistic novel.
A good story works like life itself. It is only credible if its protagonists not only feel, think and act according to their inner being, but also according to their external reality. A Madame Bovary is not a Lady Macbeth! The fate of my protagonists therefore does not take place in a vacuum, but in a concrete historical situation. Their individual fate is freely invented, but historically the collective framework in which their fate takes place is guaranteed. In this respect, historical novels are as realistic as life: While the reality around us is what it is, it gives us hope and fear again, favors our plans and then throws them back, we invent ourselves every day, we become only in the course of our lives, who and what we are - in the interplay of freedom and determination, of self and external determination, of inner imagination and outer reality.
6. A historical novel is a development novel.
Reality puts us to the test - not only in life, but also in the novel. The following rule applies: the harder reality presses and afflicts a character, the more clearly the character reveals itself. That's why I take the historical reality into which I throw my protagonists as seriously as my own life. Just as God does not change my reality to make my life easier, just as little can I change the realities in favor of my heroines in the novel - no pleading helps. This is the only way I can find out what kind of stuff my characters are made of, chapter by chapter. A welcome side effect: the more distressed my protagonists are, the greater the chance that I will entertain my readers well. And they are entitled to it! After all, they not only pay money for my book, but invest the most valuable thing they have in reading it: lifetime.
7. A historical novel is a mirror of the soul.
The material for a historical novel is literally on the street - but why does one author pick it up and the other not? A historical novel, like any other novel, is a reflection of the author's soul. As strange as it may sound: only when I find the historical figures I am describing in my own soul, with their good and bad sides, with their advantages and vices - only then can I bring them to life, inspire them, them feed them with their own reality, as I work out in research. But if I don't find my protagonists in myself, I can research myself to death - they always remain just lifeless figures, dead letters on paper.
8. A historical novel is a contemporary novel.
A story only touches us if we recognize ourselves in it. History “in itself”, on the other hand, leaves us cold. In this, too, a historical novel is like any other novel: a medium for self-understanding. By telling us about seemingly alien epochs and cultures, he not only gives us an idea of what our present has become, but also holds up a mirror for us to revitalize the dead roots of our collective thinking and feeling. What does happiness mean? What does freedom mean? What does justice mean? As we relive the trials and tribulations of our ancestors, dusty reading book texts come to life again. Achievements for which other people risked their heads and necks in the long-term past, but to which we have become so used over time that we no longer perceive them, become visible and palpable again, acquire new, existential meaning - here and now. Because we understand them not only with our heads but also with our hearts.
9. A historical novel is not an image, but a symbol.
Great stories from history - this is what historical novels are made of. Great stories are always three things at the same time: good entertainment, encounters with unfamiliar worlds, symbolic fate hieroglyphs. The latter is crucial. The great story grows beyond the mere reproduction of history. This is exhausted in the production of images. Big stories, on the other hand, create symbols. From people who push the limits of what is humanly possible. To find out what it means to be human and what it can mean.
10. A historical novel is first and foremost - a novel.
Printed in: Barbara Korte, Sylvia Paletschek (ed.): History goes Pop. To represent history in popular media and genres. transcript Published by Bielefeld 2009; Congress files of the DFG symposium “Historical Sciences in Popular Cultures of Knowledge” at the University of Freiburg 2008; Pp. 61-64.
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