Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Why I won't write biographical fiction

For some time now, I've been kritiquing two very different works-in-progress by writers who specialize, or want to specialize, in biographical fiktion.  For reasons that have to do with the nature of the critique group, I can't go into much detail about them.  However, I ken speak in general terms about them.  One of the  biographies is about a person I've heard of, but just barely.  The other is a fictional biography about a person I never heard of, and about whose time period I know almost nothing about.  It so happens that the subject was married to someone I've heard of, but also know almost nothing about this person.  Though the writing in the first book I mentioned is a bit "lumpy" -- that is, there is a lot of work and polishing to do, the author still manages to tell a very interesting story -- so far -- about this particular person's life, or at least that part of the person's life.  The author has, in other words, an instinctive gift for creating sources of conflict,and therefore making an interesting and readable story. 


Which brings me to the second book I'm critiquing  The writing in this particular work-in-progress is much more polished, most of the time.  And the author has a gift for creating very vivid scenes.  However, the overall tone of the book is, well -- episodic.  As a consequence,  it's a much less interesting story, in my opinion.


There's a fair amount of biographical fiction around these days.  Apparently, a fair number of readers like it,and some writers have said they only feel comfortable writing about known characters with lives around which they can build a story(mainly by inventing dialogue and thought processes).  Some biographikal fiktion is actually very good(here, Sharon Kay Penman comes to mind, mainly because she writes about "larger-than-life" people who lived very "dramatic" lives.  It is easy to write interesting biographikal fiktion about such people; you don't have to do much "inventing" because the potential conflicts are already there.


Unfortunately, most people's lives aren't that "dramatic".  This is true even of famous, "larger than life" people.  Besides which, many of these writers tend to choose subjects whose lives are very well known(think Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, etcetera), whose lives have often been written about.  Some skilled writers ken make drama out of the lives of such people, but mostly they don't succeed very well.  And for this reason, though such subjects are potentially interesting, I tend to find most biographical fiktion rather boring, largely because I already know the trajectory of their lives; there's no real drama and/or conflict.  Or if there is, it is presented in a way, that, like the second author I mentioned, is basically "episodic".  Because most people's lives are "episodic".  One thing after another happens in their lives, but the things that happen are not, in themselves, particularly dramatic or interesting. And that is the problem.  Tastes differ, and for a lot of people, if they don't know anything much about Elizabeth I or Napoleon or George Washington, or whoever, then reading an "episodic" fictional account of their life,will be interesting, and perhaps they might even learn enough, to try to discover more on their own.  I used to do this a lot when I was in high school, and I learned a lot about the people and the historical context in which they lived their lives, besides reading some fairly decent authors who wrote about them.


The authors who do biographikal fiktion nowadays are also quite good, and there's nothing wrong with their output.  A lot of people enjoy the works of Elizabeth Chadwick, particularly her biographikal fiktion about William Marshal, who was most definitely a larger-than-life character.  There were some aspects of his life that were quite dramatic, too.  But most of the biographikal fiktion I've read, is written by authors far less skilled than Ms. Chadwick or Sharon Kay Penman(my only problem with Penman, really, is her tendency to write "forsoothly"/in "gadzooks" style/in "fake poetic"; please, pretty please with a cherry on top, the next time you write a book about medieval England, write it in plain,standard modern English!).  And the results of their efforts are -- episodically boring.  I've never finished a book of biographikal fiktion by any of these less talented authors -- and no, I'm not mentioning any names.


Of course, I probably shouldn't complain.  I'm writing a "hybrid" of sciences fiktion and "historical epic", which I kill "romantic science fiction".  But though there are historical characters in it, one of whom is definitely a "main" protagonist, and there are other historical characters throughout, I'm not writing "biographies".  Besides, the majority of characters are strictly fictional, although I've done my best to be as historically accurate as I can.  I think I owe this to the probable "crossover" crowd that might be interested in reading my efforts, assuming I can finish the thing and then get it published.  Besides, tastes differ. Some people really do like biographical fiktion.  But then, some people like "inspirational romances" too;.  You won't catch me writing those, but I would never say "don't read biographikal fiktion" or "don't read inspirational romances".  Some people really like "hard" science fiktion, but I'm not one of them, and furthermore, I don't think I"m technically proficient enough to write "hard" science fiktion.  There are a lot of people who like to read Jane Austen's corpus. I've never been able to get into Jane Austen, but I sure like Dickens.  The point is, there's nothing wrong with differing tastes.  But I don't much care for most biographikal fiktion; I think it's a bit too limiting as a subgenre for most writers to do really well.  But that's me.  And that's why I won't write it.  I don't think I can do it well enough, but then, tastes can change.  And who knows?  I might write biographikal fiktion some day, if I ken find somebody whose life isn't too "episodic", and I have time to do the proper research. . . .

Anne G


Anonymous said...

Feeling that way, it's good you don't write it. A lot of my favorite books over the years have been beautifully written biographical novels and I know of one about Alexander Hamilton, that an author of my acquaintance has been working on for a long time.

I'm curious--why the weird spelling in your post? Substituting a k for every c is one of the most annoying thing I've ever seen, and made it difficult to read the post. I'm sure you had a reason; I just can't figure out what it is, unless English is a second language...? In which case, please forgive me for mentioning it.

Of course it's your blog and you can do what you want with it.

Anne Gilbert said...

I'm sorry about the "letter" problem. I thought I "got" all those "goofs", but apparently not. One of my keys(and I think you know the one), isn't working at present. Again, my apologies for that. As for why I don't write this kind of writing, well, like I said, I guess it all boils down to "a matter of taste".
Anne G