Ahistorical Fiction

Rivals in the City by Y S LeeHello, friends. Here we are: this week, in the UK and Australia, Walker Books publishes Rivals in the City. (The US/Canadian edition will come in February 2015 from Candlewick Press.) I am tremendously excited to see this fourth novel come into the world and meet its readers. I’m also rather wistful: it’s the last Mary Quinn mystery.

The part I’m saddest about? I’ll never again write dialogue between Mary and James. I absolutely adored writing them in and out of arguments. The part I’m happiest about? Leaving Mary poised to make her way in 1860s London, entirely on her own terms. To me, this feels like a triumph.

Like all good endings, this final pub date has made me think about Mary Quinn’s beginnings. One of the best questions I’ve ever been asked, as a writer, was a couple of years ago at Kingston WritersFest. It was from a high school student. While I can’t remember her precise words, it went something like this: “The premise for the Agency is clearly a fantasy. But you’ve chosen to write the novels as realist historical fiction. Why did you decide to blend the two?” Isn’t that a beautifully analytical question?

To mark the publication of Mary Quinn’s last adventure, here’s my answer, in the form of a short essay about what I call “ahistorical fiction”. (If you don’t want to read expository writing, I’ve posted the first chapter of Rivals in the City here, for you.) If you’re curious about the idea of ahistorical fiction, please read on. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ahistorical Fiction

My title is neither a typo nor a lousy pun. I really meant “ahistorical fiction”, which I define as a subset of historical fiction that includes elements which stand apart from mainstream history. I’m not talking about fantasy (set in an imagined world that may or may not straddle our own) or speculative fiction (which includes fantastic, supernatural or futuristic worlds). Neither do I mean fiction that is broadly anachronistic (Napoleon with a smartphone!) or counter-historical (undermining the very idea of history). Today, I’m here to defend the use of ahistorical elements in otherwise realist historical fiction.

The obvious, reflexive objections are:
1. Doesn’t that undermine historical fiction as a genre?
2. Why bother with ahistorical fiction at all? Why not write something else?

My short answers:
1. No, it enriches it.
2. See answer no. 1.

Are you ready for my longer answers? In the afterword to Code Name: Verity, Elizabeth Wein explains some of her plot choices and acknowledges that her first priority is not perfect historical accuracy. Instead, she says, her goal is simply to tell a really good story. I like that justification; it’s at the core of my writerly impulse, too. And Wein makes it sound so clean and easy. But I think it skims over some of the tricky decisions and border-drawing that happens when writers carefully include ahistorical elements in their work.

When we use ahistorical elements, we’re being selective. We’re not haphazardly inventing conveniences to rescue a stalled plot or sprinkling in some cute embellishments. Instead, we’re trying to open up our understanding of historical relationships. For Wein, this is having an English girl pilot crash-land in Nazi-occupied France. For me, in the Mary Quinn mysteries, it’s the creation of a women’s detective agency in 1850s London. In both cases, the ahistorical element is technically possible (just about). For my detective agency, I’m leaning on two historical precedents: the beginning of progressive girls’ education in the mid-nineteenth century (Bedford College was founded in 1849) and the career of Aphra Behn, the eighteenth-century playwright and spy. (The Agency is also an affectionate homage to Miss Climpson’s “typing bureau” in Dorothy L Sayers’s Peter Wimsey novels.) These specific historical leaps allow writers a different way of asking the big question at the heart of historical fiction: what if?

When I began to write A Spy in the House, the first Mary Quinn novel, I wanted to focus on an orphan girl without any advantages of money, social status, or education. I quickly realized that such a novel would be a swift, bumpy descent from poverty to prostitution to prison and, almost inevitably, early death. (This last sentence basically gives away the plot of Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin, which I highly recommend. It’s a gorgeously excessive tragedy not the least bit diminished by its inescapable ending.) Yet I wanted to rescue my protagonist, not sentence her to death. I decided to play with ideas of power by giving my orphan, Mary, a quasi-realistic opportunity to make her own way in the world: a handful of allies, a good education, a job that was more than underpaid drudgery. She would carry with her the baggage of her childhood suffering, but she would have a second chance. It was my way of using fiction to right an ongoing injustice. It was also a way to, in David Copperfield’s words, make Mary the hero of her own story.

Ahistorical elements in historical fiction are a way of rearranging the furniture. They’re also a bit like social history’s quarrel with the great-man narrative of history: what about everybody else? What if we shift our focus away from what’s always been there, and ask a different question? The use of ahistorical elements is born of love and respect for history and historical fiction. As in any relationship, though, sometimes you bump up against its limits. Sometimes you crane your neck, trying to see what exists outside its bounds. Sometimes, a fresh idea knocks you breathless. And once you’ve considered it, it helps you to see your old love anew.

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14 Responses to “Ahistorical Fiction”

  1. glauber says:

    Sure! It’s fiction, ennit? :-)

    I wish i could conceive an alternative history where we didn’t have to wait until February for the US release!

  2. Ying says:

    How about… an ardent spouse (?) builds a time machine specifically to retrieve books from the future, for the beloved bookworm. The entire enterprise remains a secret because we can’t afford to have this kind of technology used for evil (eg, illegally photocopying books of the future).

  3. Monica says:

    No more Mary Quin???? Waaaah! So where are you headed writer-wise? More mysteries? Romance? Historical documentary? Can you give us even a little clue what direction your writing is taking from here?

  4. Ying says:

    I’m happy to, Monica! My work-in-progress is still historical fiction but I’m moving both time and place: it’s set in Malaya (now called Malaysia) during the Second World War. I’m still in the very early stages but hoping it’ll be a bit of a thriller.

  5. Shelley says:

    Thank you so much for Mary and James as well as the setting! I learned much about as I enjoyed your books. I live in the US and just ordered mine from the UK.

  6. Ying says:

    Thank you very much, Shelley! I hope you love Rivals.

  7. Elise says:

    I wish the agency 4 “rivals and the city” coming in france and I wish the agency continued because i love this book Mary and James is so cute , i find this book is best for me!
    Ying, the agency is cool and i wish a book continued for a news mysteries!


  8. Ying says:

    Thank you very much, Elise! I’m afraid that Rivals is definitely the last Mary Quinn book, but I have plenty of other stories waiting to be written.

  9. stephanie kelley says:

    I love your coining of “ahistorical fiction.” As a writer of historical fiction, I can’t imagine adhering to the standard of what actually happened. What fun would that be?

  10. Ying says:

    Thank you, stephanie! I think there’s a lot of fun to be had in staying within the boundaries, too, but sometimes we’re trying to do something a little different.

  11. Paula says:

    Hey, I’m from Germany and I just finished ‘Rivals in the City’!! I’ve ordered the book from the UK and I’m so sad there is no sequel coming :( I read the other Mary-Quinn novels in German but I liked it in English even more :)
    Thank you for having written such an exciting and captivating series!!!

  12. Ying says:

    Thank you for stopping by, Paula, and for your very kind words! I’m delighted that you’ve enjoyed the series. I’ve also been sad to part with Mary Quinn, but am working on some rather different ideas. Hopefully, the people who miss Mary will enjoy the new work, too.

  13. sasa says:

    I’m French, I have already let a commentury on article. Do you have a news from french publisher for the rivals in the city ?



  14. Ying says:

    Sasa, I’m sorry I missed your comment. There isn’t a French publisher for Rivals right now. I wish I had better news for you.

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