What is the difference between writers in the past and writers of the past? The people of history did not view themselves as living in the past, but rather they were living in the present and were not burdened with foreknowledge of how the world would turn out. They lived as we do, in the present, and made choices based on fear and hope, of longing and desire, just as we do, unaware of the full consequences and ramifications of their actions. We, however, are burdened with foreknowledge, so when we look back on the past, we do so with knowledge of what things worked and what did not, at least from a practical standpoint. We can see lucky or unlucky events happen, and if we are so inclined, recognize the hand of divine providence in what was brought to pass, what was allowed, and what was denied. We can see how some problems in the past that might have appeared to be small and minor matters had massive repercussions extending into the future that we are still dealing with centuries or even millennial later.
Among the differences between writing in the past and writing about the past is that what is realistic fiction in the past is historical fiction when written about the past. And when we write about the past, it is rare when we do not smuggle in views from the present to the past. For example, in historical fiction in the contemporary age, it is impossible to think of a slaveowner who is viewed in a positive light unless they are framed as being “different” than the vast majority of slaveowners. This is because such practices are viewed as abhorrent in the present, but in the past were a common way for people to socially advance within antebellum Southern society. This is not to say that slavery was not problematic from the eighteenth century onward, but that it was entirely conceivable that someone should make a fair amount of their money via plantations in history written in the past and be viewed as worthwhile people (one thinks, for example, of the Bingleys, and the question of where they got their wealth in Pride & Prejudice, coming from the northern part of England, in ports known to be active in the slave trade), in a way that is impossible for us to view sympathetically in the present day. In writing about the past, we find it very difficult to understand the sympathies and worldviews of people living in the past and do justice to them while retaining some sense of our own justice.
This difference between living in a time and looking back on it even extends as far as the problem of the shared universe problem. Contemporary writers have found a great deal of profit exists for them in building universes that have a certain amount of fans and then providing content in that universe. It is a characteristic aspect of genre fiction for there to be the possibility of creating a universe that others enjoy and that one can profitably write in to save some of the effort of worldbuilding while also providing continuity between one book or movie and the next. Whether we are looking at the Sackett novels of Louis L’Amour within Westerns or romance authors like Julia Quinn or the Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold, all of these authors despite their very different subject material share a love of shared universes and their exploitation in dozens of best-selling books. This is something that past authors did not engage in so much when writing about their own time. We do not find, for example, characters from one Jane Austen novel hopping around as minor characters in other ones. Mr. Darcy does not interact with Lord Bertram or Baronet Eliot in the houses of Parliament, in the way that we would see in an Austenland that we create ourselves in the contemporary era. Austen herself, in a letter she wrote from London to her sister Cassandra (if I remember it correctly), commented that she had seen a portrait of Jane (Bennet) Bingley but not one of Elizabeth (Bennet) Darcy in her travels to London, demonstrating that she viewed her fiction as being realistic rather than a part of a separate historical universe.
What happened between the 1800’s and nowadays to make it so common for writers to create their own universe in which their characters dwell rather than anchor their realistic fiction in a realistic universe? To some extent, this tendency has varied based on how people conceived of their own creations. Those who write realistic fiction of necessity seek to tie their works to reality with references to the external reality that is known, as such details give their works a sense of verisimilitude and thus credibility. Genre writers, though, have often sought to create shared universes, and this goes a long way back. Sir Walter Scott, for example, wrote a series of shared universe novels in the Waverley novels about Scottish history. The detective stories about Sherlock Holmes, for example, are similarly shared universe ones, whatever pretense is made about their being realistic. One could even argue that it is the creation of a shared universe under the control of the author and subject not only to the tropes of genre but also to the author’s own tropes and patterns that divorces a given work or a given body of work from realistic fiction, which has its own requirements. That which happens in reality does not conform to the expectations of realistic fiction any more than our more imaginative genre efforts. Reality does not bend to our will the way that our own creation does, try as we might to demand and require otherwise.