|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.