At first glance, historical fanfic seems like the least appealing choice of all the AUs you could write. Firstly, there's research. Isn't that too much work? WTF I thought writing fanfic was supposed to be fun? Secondly, what's the relevance? We don't have anything in common with people who lived like a zillion years ago.
Yes, historical AUs are a lot of work and our current culture is very different. But writing them can also be rewarding, and we might have more in common with people from previous eras than you think.
Having to research the world your characters live in makes you attuned to things you take for granted or overlook while writing a contemporary AU. Writing a fic set in present day, you don't have to flesh out the world in very much detail because your readers share many of the same cultural references and can subconsciously fill in the blanks. In a historical AU everything is different, from the newspapers your characters read to their clothes, politics, entertainment, transportation, homes, and mores. Researching all of those details takes time but it also enriches your writing.
Limitations can be freeing. With so many of our modern conveniences stripped away, a historical AU opens up new ways for your characters to interact. Without electricity, for example, they have late night conversations by candlelight; without cars, long winding carriage rides; without cell phones, handwritten letters. Technology has given us a lot, but it has also taken away much of the intimacy and tactile experiences of earlier periods.
You might feel overwhelmed by the amount of information you learn while researching. Find the details that suit the tone and atmosphere of the scene you're trying to set. During the Industrial Revolution, the London skyline was grey, and the city blanketed in soot and smog; while in the countryside the gentry wore bright red tailcoats to go fox hunting over grassy knolls; architecture, whether Neoclassical or Gothic Revival featured ornate bedchambers, a drawing room, parlour room, billiard room, dining hall, and great hall where your characters can wander, entertain guests and have clandestine meetings.
What I love most about writing historical AUs is the richness it can bring to language. Contemporary language around love and sex, for example, is often flat and crass. But writing about earlier periods, prudish though they may be, allows you to experiment with rich metaphors and similes that we would never use today. "Like primrose, he bloomed under the cover of darkness". I often find alluding to acts more evocative and emotionally satisfying than describing them.
Even though people who lived hundreds of years ago led very different lives, they still harboured the same human fears and desires we do today. Setting your fic in a different period can show you just how similar we are and even heighten our understanding of those feelings by placing them in a different context.
My historical fanfic Victorian Boy is a gay love story, the type of relationship one doesn't normally associate with that period, but one that existed nonetheless. The biggest challenge writing LGBT characters in the 1800s is being historically accurate about prejudices while maintaining today's progressive values in the telling of the story. Your characters, even some of the good guys, are going to harbour views that are not socially acceptable today if you want to create an honest portrayal of the period. But you are also writing from the vantage point of today, which should be the lens through which you approach the material, its themes, plot and the moral of the story.
Prejudice is not the only obstacle to consider. One major difference between writing LGBT characters during the Victorian era and today is that homosexuality wasn't yet viewed as an identity, it was an act. Unlike LGBT characters in contemporary fics, who are struggling to come out and fighting for equality, my characters have nothing to come out as, nor a group that they can identify with and belong to. They have to search for their reflection in antiquity, art and nature. This also changes the future characters are able to imagine for themselves. If you are writing an LGBT fic set during the Victorian era, your pairing isn't going to get married, they may not even live together, but that doesn't mean the story has to end in tragedy. You can still find a happily ever after that will satisfy the characters and readers within the confines of the society you're writing about. The circumstances might be different but their love and passion for one another is very much the same.
It's true that writing a historical AU takes a lot of work and forces you to try and relate to a world that is very different from our own. But it can also strengthen your worldbuilding and open you up to new and exciting possibilities in your writing. We've progressed a lot since the Victorian era and I wouldn't want to go back. However, history is fascinating and can teach us so much. Sending your characters back there may be the perfect way to discover it.
What is your favourite historical period to write/read about?
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