Friday, May 11, 2012

History, Historical Fiction, and Related Thoughts on Writing the Same

Early yesterday, I received an invite to join a Historical Fiction Group hosted on LinkedIn, the business-slanted social media network. Since I am currently working on a historical novel, I decided to join it. One of the Group’s forums was discussing “What is considered historical fiction?” That made me chuckle because I’ve been involved with similar “religious” arguments about “What is science fiction?” (More on the science fiction issue in a bit.)
Taylor's Bridge at Eagle Rock (Idaho Falls), 1871.
Library of Congress

As some of you who follow this blog know, I write stories and novels in addition to my historical articles and books. The historical novel I'm working on grew out of information gleaned from my research on Idaho history. I have also written a few Western short stores. Some people refuse to consider Westerns even as a sub-genre of historical fiction ... and certainly the classic Western involves some conventions that seem contrived and overly restrictive in terms of historical fiction.

Be that as it may, an “easy” definition of historical fiction uses what I call the “age test.” That is, if the average reader – whoever that is – would have been too young to remember, personally, the actual world events of that period, then a book about that time would be historical fiction. Some simply reduce that to “fifty years” in the past and leave it at that. For me, these notions are amusing but unhelpful because there’s no way we can agree on a time value.

One of my favorite “historical” artifacts is the annual list put out by Beloit College to help college professors understand what is already “dated” for their freshman students. Some items don’t surprise us older folks, while others make us say Huh? for a moment. Examples:
#69 The Post Office has always been going broke.
#32. Czechoslovakia? Wasn’t that conquered by Attila the Hun? Or did he found it? (So if we write a “young adult” novel, can we treat events in Czechoslovakia as ancient history? Maybe so.)

As usual in such matters it’s generally easier to say what is not (really) historical fiction. Most of us would probably not consider novels written as adventures, mysteries, etc. in their own time – when their own time was long ago – as historical fiction. Yet the light thrown on historical times is half the fun of reading most anything written by Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Arthur Conan Doyle, and so on. The fact that Dickens actually wrote some of his novels as historical fiction complicates matters, of course.
It was the best of times ...

Yet all that may offer one “rule of thumb” to encompass the genre. Think about the famous opening to A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ...” Dickens felt the need to clearly set the timeframe at a point in past history. Some novels do open with a prologue in the past (sometimes distant past) but they then jump to something that is recognizably the “present” of the writer’s day.

So from a practical standpoint, the author of a historical novel must establish, generally within the first few pages, that the story is set some time in the past. Requiring a minimum time span is arbitrary and probably unnecessary, depending upon the rest of the author’s treatment.

A second rule of thumb involves the use of historical events. Actual past events should materially affect what the characters do, and how they behave. If outside events don’t change the characters or their actions, then what’s the point of having the story set in the past?

Finally, the crucial episodes of the historical novel should not “catch up” with the present. For me, this is a practical matter involving reader expectations.

Suppose a novel traces the fictional history of a political family, pointing toward one prominent member of that family. The final chapter cannot open with that politician running for office in the present time, with issues still unresolved. Forget the reader, because your novel won’t get to them. The editor or agent who gets the manuscript will say: “You should have told me this was a contemporary political novel.” After all, for most people, what’s happening now is all-important. You would be expected to “frame” the historical buildup between a contemporary opening and a present-day ending.

 A novel that traced the history of an important medical development, or heroic physician, would be subject to the same scrutiny if it ended with a present-day climax. (You can fill in the blanks for other topics.) It seems to be all right to complete the novel, with climax and closure, and then show some present-day impact as a triumphant, ironic, bitter-sweet, or even tragic Afterword.

Now let’s shift gears a bit to “future history” – a (weak) definition of one sub-genre of what we generally call science fiction. A few years back, I attended a science fiction conference where a famous, much-published author was guest of honor. During a question-and-answer panel, I asked him if he thought a knowledge of history was important for writers who wanted to create realistic future societies for their novels. He clearly agreed that it was, but the panel time limit expired before he/we could develop the idea.

Historical background is vital because, no matter how futuristic we make the setting, we are the only intelligent (no jokes, please) creatures we know. It is incredibly difficult to create a truly alien society (believe me, I’ve tried). And the “baseline” by which we – authors and readers – judge their “alienness” is us. But we only know us, collectively, by our history.

That brings us to an odd science fiction sub-genre known as “alternative history.” Most such stories posit that a member of the author’s contemporary society is transported by some unknown mechanism into our past or (projected) future, or to an “alternate timeline.” Sometimes the time traveler to the past changes history, thus creating a new timeline. (Much hand-waving usually ensues to “prove” that he couldn’t have changed his own timeline.) Diana Gabaldon uses a time travel gimmick, but then her characters fit themselves into known history, more or less as in traditional historical fiction.
Suppose the Axis Powers Won?

Perhaps the most interesting alternative history novels don’t bother to create any “convenient” connection to our present day. These stories examine what might have happened if some historical turning point had gone the other way: Suppose Carthage survived the Third Punic War as a counter-check to Roman power? Napoleon had won at Waterloo? Roosevelt died during his first term? The variations are endless. The characters know no other history/society besides their own – there is no other history. Of course, the author must sooner or later let the reader know where/when this history diverged from ours.

Done well, with the ramifications worked out in ways that make sense, such novels are fascinating to read. As you might expect, doing them well requires a careful study of history as we know it.


  1. I have a hard time thinking of anything after the early twentieth century as "historical fiction." I mean, if anyone is still alive from a time, how can it be historical?


  2. I think that Evan covers the subject admirably here - though perhaps it may not actually be essential that 'Actual past events should materially affect what the characters do, and how they behave'. They indeed very often do so in what many undoubtedly Historical Fiction novelists write and, indeed, in the novel which I myself am composing, but perhaps setting a story within the context of the social conventions, thought-patterns, mores and way of life of a past era still would qualify the work as HF, without necessarily requiring the story itself to be influenced by 'great events' of the era - political, military or whatever. An entirely different set of social thinking, behaviour and values, factors quite remote and alien to our modern western thought and society, perhaps justifies a past setting and answers Evan’s question: ‘If outside events don’t change the characters or their actions, then what’s the point of having the story set in the past?’

    To JMO's posting, I would say that the whole of the first half of the 20th Century is considered 'history' in schools here in the UK ('high schools 'in Ameriglish') and taught as such. 'The causes of and events leading to World War II' is a perennial subject on the syllabus; all my kids studied that one (evidently, it starts with WWI). There are STILL quite a number of people alive today who were born at the time of WWI or before, though the last combatants have died - only in the last few years, however.

  3. Thank you Roger. As far as the impact of "past events" goes, you have captured my thoughts very well. It need not be the "great events" of the past that change the characters -- but the entire social milieu must. Now, obviously, involving your characters in those great events may add interest to your story, but it is certainly not necessary.

  4. We are entirely at one on this, then, are we not, Evan? I'll post a comment back onto the Linkedin group to refer them again to your excellent site and blog.

    In my own case, both historical events and the influence of significant real characters certainly do play a part, as well as the social conditions of the times; I take my main fictional protagonists through the War of American Independence, the subsequent peace, the French Revolution itself and into the subsequent French Revolutionary War; my list of minor characters or those putting in but a 'cameo appearance' includes Kings George III and Louis XVI, various admirals including Samuel Hood and François-Joseph Paul de Grasse, a young General of Artillery Napoléon Bonaparte, Commodore Horatio Nelson, Wolfe Tone, Sir Edward Pellew, to name just a few.

  5. We are indeed in total agreement. And I really like the use of the term "cameo" for when major historical figures play a minor/brief role in your story.

    My wife thoroughly enjoys the series of Plaidy books where major historical figures are the main characters in the novels. However, unless the person in question left a detailed diary or other memoir, I am uncomfortable with the notion that a modern author can "get inside the skin" of a real person. A brief vignette for a cameo role, absolutely, but page after page of dialog and thoughts just doesn't track for me. Still, such "fictionalized biographies" of historical figures are very popular and can make valuable contributions when they're based on extensive and well-founded research.

  6. We ought to post some of this on the general list for the benefit and input of some of the other members, should we not, Evan? (a good Welsh name there!)

    I am in broad agreement with you about 'fictionalized biographies'. Even in the very professional hands of Max Gallo, the Napoléon series does not really work for me - though it did teach me a few real things about his life of which I was previously ignorant (and yes, I did read it in French). David Donachie's on Horatio Nelson grates a little too, especially such completely fictional episodes as the young midshipman's sexual initiation in India. But some do work really well, I think, such as Manda Rice's great series on Buddica (Queen Boadicea of the Iceni), about whose real personal life and history very little is known anyway. Another writer whose historical fictional works I devoured in my youth was Mary Renault, with her novels of ancient Greece, some with entirely fictional protagonists, others based on historical or semi-mythological characters such as Theseus, the stories de-mythologised and written as possible real-life versions of the tales which became the legends. Mistressful stuff!

  7. I totally agree with you, Evan. Getting into the skin of historical characters, thinking, feeling, speaking, acting as they could have done - while all this makes for wonderful and gripping narratives, they would not count as history - and hence not historical fiction. [I posted a more detailed comment on this, but it didn't go through for some reason. I'm keeping this brief as I'm not sure that won't turn up as well, in which case I'll be repeating myself]