Saturday, January 26, 2013

When is Fiction Not Needed in Historical Fiction?

That is a question all authors of historical fiction face when choosing a time period or incident to write about.  Yes, the answer can vary, but so can the results and repercussions of the choice.

Generally, historical fiction can be broken down into 4 categories of choice regarding the amount of fiction involved. These run the gambit: history light, history interwoven, re-imagined and based upon a true story.

History light and history interwoven are perhaps the two easiest to distinguish. History light would include the old Harlequin or Silhouette romances along with paranormal, where history is just a flavoring to the story and not essential. History interwoven are stories when the characters seamlessly interact with the real people and society of the time.  The more tricky categories are the last two: re-imagined and based upon a true story.  Don’t confuse the two as being interrelated, because that isn’t necessarily the case.

Re-imagined or alternative takes history and people and re-arranges them in order to form a different outcome. Heavy fiction is used but tends to extrapolate the known facts with alternative theories and conclusions.  For example, Fatherland by Robert Harris written in 1992 is set in Europe after the Nazi victory. Some would consider Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in this category of a re-imagined America.

Taking the re-imagined/alternative approach often generates the most backlash upon an author. History purists are usually appalled while speculators cheers. It requires a deft hand to craft a re-imagined story to satisfy both sides with facts and conjecture.

Based upon a true story can be a mind-field, especially if an author is dealing with recent history and some people involved are still alive.  Perhaps the best example of this deals with the Kennedy family. So many fiction and non-fiction books are floating out there about what some consider the ‘royal’ family of America.

Basing a story upon recent history, the author must be well-armed since legal ramifications are very possible when portraying individuals still living in a fictional account. Other incidents in history that are well documented can also generate problems for an author. Yes, writing fiction authors can – and often – claim creative license, but what is the purpose of writing a story based upon reality if not to bring it to life as it happened?

Many readers of historical fiction are history buffs and can smell a false representation a mile off. Sure, they can forgive if the story is engaging and well-written, but what about responsibility to those of whom the story is written? Again that is a conundrum facing authors of historical fiction – audience vs. history?

Such was the case for me when writing Glencoe. True, all the incidents happened in the late 1600s, but it is well documented and the repercussions still felt today. Personally, I felt my literary freedom balanced by the desire to correctly portray the events and people.

In the end, each author must choose the amount of fiction and history, and with the choice, face the results.


  1. What an interesting post! I often think that we should be offered more sub-genres by online stores so that as readers, we can access exactly what we wish to read. For myself, I like the purity of Dorothy Dunnett's hist.fict at the very top of the scale, to the no less historical but far 'softer' fiction of Georgette Heyer.
    As a new writer of hist.romance, I would classify my first title and its soon to be released sequel as 'soft' or perhaps even 're-imagined'. Either way, for me, the plot must always be character-driven and must nestle comfortably within its historical framework. Because without doubt you are right: hist.fict readers are often as learned as the authors and their knowledge should always be respected. Thank you for posting this.

    1. Character driven fiction is what makes me want to learn about the historical period - even "soft" or "re-imagined". :) After all, this is why most historical fiction authors write - because we're fascinated with the time period and want to learn and experience it.

  2. I appreciate the clarification in this post. Personally, I love historicals. Sometimes I can tell when someone is writing fiction regarding a historical figure and sometimes I can't. I'd probably read it either way, but it would be great to know the difference going in.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. At times it can be difficult to tell, but that can be good, especially when the author is attempting to make the fictional characters as real as the "real" people.

  3. Nice to read something talking history from a writer’s point of view. You’re focusing, naturally enough, on the extent to which the fiction is grounded in actual historical events and what we know of the character of the named individuals who participated in them, but it’s worth mentioning that there are many sub-genres in Historical Fiction and in part, they are shaped by the extent to which real history dominates the scene, narrative and the characterisation of the dramatis personae. There’s a partial list here and I’m glad to see one of my favourite ‘historical’ novels, Susanna Clarke’s Strange & Norrell, gets a mention. I’m amused to see ‘western’ novels included as ‘historical’ novels. I had never thought of them as such and, I dare say, I’m not the only one!

    I do think your categories of light, interwoven, re-imagined and based on a true story, are interesting. The first two are concerned with the extent to which known history dominates or drives the narrative. The former, I suspect, will appeal to more readers as the ‘light’ treatment of history means that the characters and their situations will seem more ‘familiar’ to those whose knowledge of history is shaky, whereas interwoven history absolutely relies on the reader’s knowledge for it to work, and, indeed, a great part of the pleasure of such novels is seeing how the author has explored the setting, the events and the social and psychological framework that (to our modern way of thinking) influenced and limited the choices available to the characters.

    Re-imagined and ‘based on a true story’ concern what the author does with the known history. The first might be a whole-sale re-ordering, including both alternate historical narratives and the introduction of things ‘not of this world’ as in Strange & Norrell. Based on a true story may also include things ‘not of this world’, if they provide a satisfying explanation for a known historical event, such as the Marie Celeste or the missing lighthouse keepers of the Flannan Isle, but is primarily an act of interpretation of known events, much like the countless versions of Jack the Ripper. If any feel that the fantastical does not truly belong in any work of historical fiction, I would merely suggest they read Macbeth or Hamlet!

    There is a good argument that historical fiction writers owe a duty to the fabric of history; to fictioneer only as much as needed to tell their story and to respect historical fact. Admittedly my Acts of the Servant is alternate history + magic, but even so I have grounded it in known history, even if I have, frankly, played fast and loose with reality. But if we do owe a duty to the fabric of history then, I feel, there is one area that we are lacking and that is in our choice of whose stories to tell. Specifically, where are the historical fictions based on the life of the ordinary yeoman or working man/woman (picks up flat-cap and whippet) those people who were the ancestors of the great majority of us and whose stories contain as much drama and misfortune and joy as those of the horse riding genteel nobility, and without which (with a nod to Hardy and Dickens) the fabric of history is ragged indeed.

    1. Very interesting comments, Colin, and in large part I agree.

      As to "westerns", when the stories first began to appear as serial shorts and dime store novel, they were contemporary in nature. True, they exaggerated the exploits of - say - Buffalo Bill, but he was alive at the time. These real life "cowboys" became legendary when going from the novel to early silent and talking movies where they actually filmed using real Cowboys and Indians. Hence, for those people for the early 20th century, "western" was a reality, today, it is history.

  4. The whole topic of "how should historical fiction be written" is certainly interesting and ever-contentious.

    I'm generally a hard-line purist--I think novelists have a duty to stick to the known facts as much as possible, although I realize that varying amounts of invention are inevitable.

    What really gets to me is when an author goes whole-hog in making things up about real people, without making it clear that this is just their pure fantasy. So many people read the most historically bizarre novels, and assume they're based on real events. What makes it worse is that authors so frequently flat-out slander historical figures. When they "make things up" it's so often to portray certain real people as womanizers, or rapists, or even murderers, when there is NO evidence they were really anything of the sort. To me, that's just reprehensible.

    1. Queen Victoria: Demon Hunter?

      If people do read obviously innacurate novels and regard them as real, then they're the ones with the problem, not the writer. Otherwise we would have to regard Carry On Up The Khyber as a dreadful travesty of soldierly life on the NW frontier, and that would be just silly.

      One might argue that those of us fictionalising history are actually truer to the tradition of history writing than those pedants who insist on the unvarnished truth.

  5. An interesting post and equally interesting comments, Shawn.

  6. A really nice analysis of different approaches to historical fiction! Thanks for a thought-provoking article.

  7. I have written an MPhil thesis on romance and realism in Historical Fiction. It is never possible to know what an historical character really thought. One can only ever speculate. Facts are not always true either and certainly as regards women's history are often just not there. I do believe in sticking to facts though where they exist and I also believe that I am writing fiction and am not writing biography or as an historian. What to me is seriously important as a writer is to create a faithful atmosphere. I think Hilary Mantel got it right in Wolf Hall but interestingly she does not presume to say that she is right. She presents possibilities and hopefully provokes a reader into thinking about these. Also Philippa Gregory will now say that she brings something of the heroine we want to read into her work and that will colour it. There is no way that her Other Boleyn Girl is the truth but it is a great read and well written. So well researched but not necessarily what really happened is I think the light that shines through good well written historical fiction.


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