Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Historical Burnout

I'm afraid I may be suffering from a case of Historical Burnout.*


*Historical Burnout: A disorder common to writers of historical fiction.

Symptoms: Violent envy of writers of contemporary fiction, who don't have to worry about endlessly researching "real" dates or places, or when exactly bloody certain rooms (or "chambers") were built, or what palace was used when, or what frigging shoes or headgear people were wearing, or drinks or food they were eating, or even which #$@% words they might or might not have been using at any particular time. Disillusionment with research. May manifest itself in:
(1) moments of bitterness towards writers of non-historical fiction ("those who have chosen the easy path");
(2) an explosion of brackets within the writer's current manuscript (e.g., [check drink]);
(3) a sharp increase in swearing within those brackets (e.g., [who the frig cares what frigging gypsies were wearing on their heads at this point, but bloody well check it anyway]); or
(4) a careless disregard for historical facts or conventions; the writer may, in extreme circumstances, choose to include the word "brat" without brackets, because it conveys the character better than any historically correct word.

Diagnosis: A quick glance over the writer's recent work will allow for an easy diagnosis. Symptoms can also be seen in conversations, emails, and chats, particularly with other writers. Watch closely for clues in conversations with non-historical writers, or occasionally in blogs.

Causes: This disorder is usually caused when a writer is attempting to write a book based in a completely unfamiliar time or setting. Unfortunately it can recur while writing the same book, and even when cured can often recur with the next historical.

Treatment: For mild cases, a diversion into contemporary short fiction can be effective. This treatment can (1) distract and/or energize the writer and (2) correct the common delusion of this disorder that contemporary writing is in any way "easy". Some writers find successful recovery by introducing a time-traveling modern character. More severe cases may require a break from the historical or the simultaneous writing of a contemporary novel. Unfortunately in the most grave cases the entire historical, or even the entire genre, may be shelved, and the writer may veer off permanently into writing hot urban fantasy.


I think it's just a mild case so far, so we might try the contemporary short story. {g}

P.S. Medieval Word of the Day? Who bloody cares??


Sara Walker Howe said...

Oh, dear. Well, FWIW, I always appreciate well-researched historicals, and I just hate derived drivel. You know, the ones where a writer doesn't do any research, just assumes she can write something based on the one novel she's read of the same period. So, doing the work is probably worth it.

OTOH, I gave up my medieval-ish, traditional fantasy for all those reasons listed, and jumped into contemporary fantasy. Not that it's any easier, or without it's swiss cheese moments. (My SFR is covered in []s, just as the first draft of the UF was. Although the brackets aren't always waiting for research of actual places & people-- though some are-- most of them are waiting for me to think and plan and create whole worlds from which to draw research. In some ways it's easier to have something already there to look up, than to have to devise a whole new world with laws and rules and stuff.)

But the worry over the bloody right word? Yeah, I'm so glad I'm not into that any more.

But you should know that SFF fans are just as rabid about accuracy as historical fans are. If you establish a rule in SFF, you have to follow through with it, or at the very least, have a very, *very* good reason for not. For example, if you give your character the ability to fly, you have to make sure you character flies when in a confrontation with a bad guy. If she doesn't fly, it'd better be because the bad guy is holding a hostage. Or, there's a pound of kryptonite next to him. *g*)

I hope the burnout gets better soon!

Anonymous said...


I'm sorry you're feeling so down about writing historicals. Writing historicals is incredibly time consuming, and with all you do--school, work, Child, writing--time doesn't sound like something you have a lot of. It must be very frustrating to only have an hour to write and to find that you can't get very far because of all the research holes you encounter.

Have you ever considered writing a novel set in the same time period/setting as Book 2 but focusing on imagined, rather than historical, characters? That way, you're not bound by chronology and biographical fact. It's the route I chose, and I'm so glad I did. My MC is based on a historical personage, but I purposely chose NOT to write a fictionalized account of that person's life. I took some salient features of the real poet's life/situation and created a new character and my own web of events. I am able to use what I know about the time period and to justify my character's "feminism" by pointing to the historical person, but I am absolved of the responsibility of accurately depicting the circumstances of the real person's particular life.

Is there a secondary character whom you could transform into your MC? She could still interact with Isabella, so you wouldn't lose all the time and research you've put in so far, but you'd have more freedom and less stress in writing. (I don't want to rain further on your parade, but there was recently a novel published about Isabella and her sister called Leonardo's Swans. Are you familiar with it?)

Or maybe put the historical away until summer or whenever you'll have more time and spend your writing time now working on a contemporary.

Anyway, just some thoughts and some probably (unwanted) advice. I thoroughly sympathize, and wish you all the best.


Susan Adrian said...

Sara and Julianne:

Not to worry. The burnout is mostly a joke--it's something that happens to me in the course of writing historicals, and I get over it, write a contempt short story, and move on. {s}


RE your suggestion...Book 1 (TMT) IS based on an imagined character who interacts with historical characters, but not much. One of the biggest problems that agents have reported to me is that they want a book based on real-life characters, not fictional! I'm not writing to spec, but I am trying something different with Isabella since she is so interesting in herself. Hadn't seen the novel, but I really would be surprised if no one else had written about them. Will go check it out.

Thanks, guys!!

Susan Adrian said...

And after I checked:

Whew! Leonardo's Swans isn't about MY Isabella after all. ;)

Anonymous said...


Sorry for the scare about L's Swans. I'm glad it wasn't your Isabella. I started reading it a while back but didn't get too far, so I didn't really remember which Isabella it was about. The first chapter was about two young sisters, so I was fearing the worst...

Again, my apologies!

I've got some historical figures in my book; they're just not the focal characters. I hope that will satisfy the agents/editors.


Carol said...

Aw Susan,
Sorry you're having a bad day. I blame the weather.(g) You're right, there are many more demands placed on historical writers opposed to other genres. It is also heartbreaking to hear an agent say no after all of the time you have invested in your work. And equally hard to see so much stuff published that is inferior to your own work. *sigh* Just know we all appreciate what you're going through and are pulling for you.

Rose said...


ROF,L! I totally get it and me too!

We should, like, start a twelve-step program or something. {g}


Susan Adrian said...


I'm not having a bad day, really! It's just a joke based on a common experience for historical writers...

Susan Adrian said...


We should! We have two members already. I'm not sure what Vic counts as, since she succumbed... {evil grin}

Carol said...

Three members! I wanna join. (s)

Anonymous said...

LOLOLOLOL!!!! Dude, I suggest to just drink more.{vbg}

P.S. Sorry I wasn't on IM today. A gal at work wanted to switch so I got to do the 7-4 shift.

Julie K said...


Just starting to hit the research pahse, but I'm alsmost all ready to join your support group [g]!

Julie K

Susan Adrian said...

Carol and Julie: you're in!

Kreek: The wine did help the situation quite a bit last night. {g}
And I missed you, but glad you got to switch shifts!