Ah, I considered simply responding to Michelle's post in a normal reply, but then I got to thinking: this has been on my mind lately, so I will just add to her marvelous post. She is totally right - the focus of historical fiction is a bear to smooth out and find the right balance between history and fiction... but above all, no matter where a novel is set, it must be about the story. Other wise, pages will be filled with complicated, and essentially inhuman, words.
As a writer of historical fiction (medieval) I often find myself incensed at the mountains upon mountains of worthless historical fiction. I am not certain this is an occurrence of me being a snob or what. But honestly... *plaintive sigh*
I just finished The Illuminator and thoroughly wished I had not been tempted to buy it. It is exactly what Michelle describes below - an overly unkind attitude toward the past. It takes place in the late 1300s when John Wycliffe is spreading "heretical" ideas about the Medieval church - its corruption and a "big" push for equality among the gentry and the peasantry. However, the characters talk like they're lobbyists fully involved in the struggle... and not surprisingly, there is no attempt to show the Middle Ages as anything but bleak. According to writer Brenda Rickman Vantrease, love was non-existent except in lustful, physical consummation; there were no righteous and good holy men (they all seem to be either dangerous radicals or greedy, wealthy yes-men of useless popes... and during this time there were actually two), nor righteous and good laymen; women were always regarded as little more than sexual property; and all conflicts with evil royal regents and the Church ended in bloodshed... the list goes on.
But the Middle Ages is not so different from the the Dark Ages... or the Renaissance... or Victorian England... or World War Two... in the fact people were still human, feeling human emotions and making human mistakes. The world was no more black and white and bleak than it is now. The citizens of 2008 (almost 2009) live in the same world that citizens of 1390 did - it is simply a little older. Regardless of what ideals or religious fervor ordered their lives, they still have a story. The post-modern age revels self-indulgently in the thought that with our technology and increasing knowledge of our universe, we are somehow above the views and stories of the past... when in fact, it isn't true. The stories have color. They never were black and white.
When writing historical fiction for myself, I have been swept away in the knowledge that it is a profound balancing act. That history is more than just a backdrop for a story, but often the life-blood, and the characters cannot be mouthpieces for current ideas. I, too, worry over the technicalities - wondering if a monk would really enter a bedchamber to tend to a sick young woman... whether or not there would have been some gender-barrier preventing him from giving her solace. Or what of the reverse? Could a woman tend to a man?
It is a beautiful challenge... but one I take personally for the sake of the stories of the past.
(Thanks, Michelle, for writing about this!)