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?
DE Johnson’s author website: www.dejohnsonauthor.com
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