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The Balance Of Real And Unreal In Historical Novels, by DE Johnson

By definition, historical fiction is a lie. It’s made up; not true. Otherwise it would be history. Writers deal with that fact in a variety of ways. Some will simply pick a historical backdrop and write a completely fictional story set in their approximation of that time and place. Others will look for real events and people, and fit their fictional characters within the real story of those events and people, and still others will write their imagining of how a real story with real people took place, staying true to the historical record as best they can. And the last category – one I find personally perplexing – is to take real historical characters and make them the protagonist in stories in which they do things they never did or even would have done in their real lives.

Most historical readers have a passion for real history, so there don’t seem to be many books published these days in the first style. Traditionally, a historical romance (has the name changed yet to historical erotica? I hope not) would most often be written as a completely fictional tale set in a historical environment. A time and place is chosen for the story, and away we go with the dashing prince and the lowly servant girl.

Most historical novels fall into the second category – real events takes place, and some of the characters are real historical characters, but the protagonist and other key characters are fictional. This is what I do. I find interesting history (the rise and fall of the electric car in the early Twentieth Century, the first mob war in Detroit history, the largest insane asylum in the U.S. and mental health treatment a hundred years ago, and the battle for women’s suffrage) and create a story that will fit within that backdrop. My books are mysteries, so of course there are bodies, and those stories are fictional. However, it’s important to me to be as accurate as I can in describing the people, places, and events that were really there. I like to learn as I am entertained, so when I read about an ancient (or not so ancient) time and place, I enjoy the little history lesson included (as, I suspect, do you, the reader of this post).

The third style – fictionalizing real events and characters only as much as the historical record doesn’t detail – is a tricky one to pull off. Some writers do this incredibly well. They tell a real story but include unknown dialogue and some unknown actions – but only those that have a significant impact on the true story. It’s a “just the facts, ma’am” approach, so obviously they need a great story to start out with. These books are almost always “one-offs,” as it would be very difficult to write an interesting series that sticks to the truth. The story of the Battle of Gettysburg or Machine Gun Kelly will be fascinating, but what do you write when the battle is done or the criminal is killed? (And this is not to say that I don’t love this style. Some of my favorite historical novels are real stories that have been “novelized.”)

With an apology to those of you who write or enjoy the last style – taking a real person and having them do things the real person would not have done – I simply don’t get it. And many of these are or have been popular books: Edgar Allan Poe, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart, even Groucho Marx and Elvis Presley – solving crimes? Say what? Throw in some zombies and we’ve really got a party going.

Okay, maybe I’m overstating it. If the book is camp (as I imagine the Marx and Presley books to be), then I understand the entertainment value. If the story gives readers another book written in the style of a favorite author, then I guess I understand that too. I suppose I’m hung up on the other possibility – that the story better illuminates the character. Why not write about something they really did? If it’s not interesting enough, then why not find another character?

What’s your favorite style, and why?


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The Detroit Electric SchemeMotor City Shakedown     The Emerald Storm: An Ethan Gage AdventureA Sunless SeaThe Keeper of SecretsThe Daughter's Walk

Writing Historical Novels

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. lol! It’s funny to me that you have trouble with the last style only because my first historical novel, which I’m currently working on, is this way. Although Turlough O’Carolan is not the main character, he plays a heavy-duty role. But I’m fortunate here that even his gift of music is surrounded by Irish faery lore. 😀 I love fiction and I love history, so I’ll read anything in the genre so long as it’s fairly clean. I don’t like anything erotic, so I’ve only just started reading the regency romances by my publisher, Astraea Press. 🙂 What I love about historical fiction, is that it gets me interested in the real history and motivates me to start researching what really happened during the time.

    January 17, 2013
  2. I would say that there’s a one-and-a-half option too, fit somewhere between your first and your second. Novels populated entirely by fictional characters doing fictional things, yet very firmly set amidst well-researched historical events. At least these are the ones that I most enjoy reading and writing, as I find myself most attracted to ordinary people in extraordinary times.

    January 17, 2013
  3. I actually enjoy all three styles. For me, what matters is how well the author writes and integrates the time period.

    I’m in love with The Gilded Age and I did something that is in a different category than these three: I rewrote Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth” as “Rosedale in Love” from the POV of a minor character. Whartonites seem to love it, and I got invited to read from it at their latest conference–in Florence.

    January 17, 2013
  4. I personally am fascinated by stories which fill in possible events and conversations surrounding a real event. But I agree, it would be hard to maintain that “real” person’s perspective as the main character for more than one book. I’ve been reading a lot of art stories… stories featuring the models for many of the great paintings, and the events surrounding the creation of that artwork, or the artist’s life, or whatever. Guess I’m showing my art nerd side (it’s kind of hard for me to hide; it’s just who I am). It’s funny how much I like historical fiction, when my most hated classes in school were history. Maybe the textbooks just needed better writers.
    P.S. I have to say, maybe it’s slightly off topic, but as much as I love Jane Austen, I’m sick and tired of Mr. Darcy books. I understand wanting more of a character, but really, I’m surprised they don’t have Mr. Darcy Picks His Nose. Or maybe they do. I might have to Google it.

    January 17, 2013
  5. Maybe there’s a two-and-a-bit: fictional characters affecting the outcomes of real-life events.

    I always look for incidents about which historians disagree, or where the currently accepted version doesn’t completely make logical sense. There are plenty of both, it seems to me.

    And you can always steal actions from real people to give your inventions. As long as you admit it, right at the end 🙂

    January 17, 2013
  6. I kind of like taking real historical characters and maybe putting them into completely uncharted territory and see what they do. But you’d have to stay true to their real personality, in my opinion. However, for me personally, I draw the line at Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Slayer. =D

    January 17, 2013
  7. Love historical fiction. Since I work with memoir and lifewriting, I’m particularly fascinated with those “confusing” books that tell a historical figure’s story and fill in the gaps with historical fiction, like the recent Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. I’m always left wondering which parts were real and which weren’t, nice I suppose as it makes me want to read more (nonfiction) about that person, that time, or that event. I also love those art books like Luncheon of the Boating Party or Girl With the Pearl Earring. Unfortunately, there are those who take things at face value so you get people having to tell others that things didn’t really happen just that way in Disney’s animated Pocahontas.

    As for Abraham Lincoln-Vampire Slayer, those types of books/movies are ridiculous fun, to each his own although I won’t be reading or watching. On a less ridiculous level, I would think if an author took a real historical figure and made him do things not in character that readers and critics would take him or her to task on it.

    January 18, 2013
  8. I write in your third category. I find it fascinating to take real people, times, places, and events and bring them to life. In my mind, as I learn about their events and lives, it becomes quite obvious how they would act or what conversations they would have during a specific event. Of course, they probably end up sounding, speaking, and thinking a lot like me. 🙂 I actually just posted a blog the other day detailing the research and creation process of my current work in progress. Check it out and let me know what you think.

    January 20, 2013

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