An exploration of three reader expectations to help us become more discerning readers and more skillful writers of historical fiction.
New reader? Browse through the free newsletter archives and subscribe.
Sometimes, when I tell people that I write, translate, and teach historical fiction, I get that raised eyebrow look. This is often followed by a comment along the lines of “I read history texts, not historical fiction, to learn about the past.”
And while I know there are just as many readers who don’t care for academic or scholarly history texts and do, indeed, get most of their historical know-how from novels, that is certainly not why I read, write, translate, and teach historical fiction.
The above mindset (and why historical fiction is sometimes seen as “not fiction because it’s about real people/events” and “not history because it’s fictionalized”) persists due to three related readerly expectations, which we’ll explore briefly below.
This discussion is not only for those resistant readers. It is also because, to become better writers of historical fiction, we must read smarter. Each of these three points is worth at least an entire essay of its own, so we’ll do deeper dives in the coming months as well.
Reading Historical Fiction Should Feel Different from Reading History
You wouldn’t go to Macbeth to learn about the history of Scotland—you go to it to learn what a man feels like after he’s gained a kingdom and lost his soul.Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 1964.
Despite being based on or concerned with events and/or characters in history, a fictional work is more focused on character(s). History is about the whys and wherefores of the events that happened. Historical fiction is about investigating and revealing what it must have been like for the people involved in those events. Both narrative modes are looking for certain kinds of truth. They might even employ the same literary devices to make their prose more compelling and immersive. But, while the historian wants us to learn as much as we can about the past, the historical fiction writer wants us to actually experience that past. The historian wants us to understand, for example, why and how Britain became a colonizer. The historical fiction writer wants us to experience being the colonized or the colonizer.
This conflation of imaginative and discursive writing happens with fiction in general but even more so with historical fiction. As Frye writes in the same essay collection:
Many people grow up without really understanding the difference between imaginative and discursive writing. On the rare occasions when they encounter poems, or even pictures, they treat them exactly as though they were intended to be pieces of more or less disguised information. Their questions are all based on this assumption. What is he trying to get across? What am I supposed to get out of it? Why doesn’t somebody explain it to me? Why couldn’t he have written it in a different way so I could understand him? The art of listening to stories is a basic training for the imagination. You don’t start arguing with the writer: you accept his postulates, even if he tells you that the cow jumped over the moon, and you don’t react until you’ve taken in all of what he has to say. If Bertrand Russell is right in saying that suspension of judgment is one of the essential operations of the mind, the benefits of learning to do this go far beyond literature. And even then what you react to is the total structure of the story as a whole, not to some message or moral or Great Thought that you can snatch out of it and run away with.Frye, Northrop. The Educated Imagination. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 1964.
Yes, there are university course reading lists that include both history textbooks and historical novels and films. Generally, the latter two are supplemental materials to help students visualize and develop emotional connections with the events being studied.
That said, let’s also acknowledge that the best historical fiction writers will always see the historian’s five and work to raise them ten. As Salman Rushdie wrote in this 2021 Guardian essay:
For all its surrealist elements, Midnight’s Children is a history novel, looking for an answer to the great question history asks us: what is the relationship between society and the individual, between the macrocosm and the microcosm? To put it another way: do we make history, or does it make (or unmake) us? Are we the masters or victims of our times?Rushdie. (2021, April 3). Salman Rushdie on Midnight’s Children at 40: “India is no longer the country of this novel.” The Guardian. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/apr/03/salman-rushdie-on-midnights-children-at-40-india-is-no-longer-the-country-of-this-novel.
Or, as Zadie Smith puts it so beautifully and urgently in a New York Review essay about the artist, Kara Walker:
What might I want history to do to me? I might want history to reduce my historical antagonist—and increase me. I might ask it to urgently remind me why I’m moving forward, away from history. Or speak to me always of our intimate relation, of the ties that bind—and indelibly link—my history and me. I could want history to tell me that my future is tied to my past, whether I want it to be or not. Or ask it to promise me that my future will be revenge upon my past. Or warn me that the past is not erased by this revenge. Or suggest to me that brutal oppression implicates the oppressors, who are in turn brutalized by their own acts of oppression. Or argue that an oppressor can believe herself to be an oppressor only within a system in which she herself has been oppressed. I might want history to show me that slaves and masters are bound at the hip. That they internalize each other. That we hate what we most desire. That we desire what we most hate. That we create oppositions—black white male female fat thin beautiful ugly virgin whore—in order to provide definition to ourselves by contrast. I might want history to convince me that although some identities are chosen, many others are forced. Or that no identities are chosen. Or that all identities are chosen. That I feed history. That history feeds me. That we starve each other. All of these things. None of them. All of them in an unholy mix of the true and the false . . .Smith. (2020, February 27). What Do We Want History to Do to Us? The New York Review. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2020/02/27/kara-walker-what-do-we-want-history-to-do-to-us/.
There will always be historical fiction where, instead of any of the above, the primary narrative urge is about nostalgia or escapism, such that the storytelling is driven by sentimentality, romanticism, hagiography, idealistic fantasy, coziness, or even social conservatism. There may be fetishization due to a fascination with savagery, mystery, or exoticization. There may be misrepresentation due to a conflation with mythology or a reduction of history to mere backdrop or costume drama.
We are more interested here in what A. S. Byatt has defined as:
. . . serious and ambitious fiction set in the past, not for the pleasures of escapism or bodice-ripping, but for complex aesthetic and intellectual reasons. Some of it is sober and some of it is fantastic, some of it is knowing and postmodernist, some of it is feminist or post-colonial rewritings of official history, some of it is past prehistory, some of it is very recent.Byatt, Antonia Susan. On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Historical Gaps, Omissions, and Conflicts Require Fictional Inventions and Interventions
Whether the narrative mode is fact or fiction, all writers documenting the past are bound by what’s on record as verifiable evidence. All of them must select from that recorded, verifiable evidence and then add their own layers of interpretation, representation, and embellishment.
As I’ve written before, I see this genre as “an imaginative mode of exploring and interrogating the past to understand how it has shaped our present,” and one of the ways of “reconstructing the gaps and omissions of a past era—with its full intent and spirit, mind you—such that we gain a new appreciation of it all.”
So a fiction writer diverges from the historian in two main ways: the excavation of inner lives and, where it makes sense, the addition of fictional characters, plots, and events to fill certain gaps. (Note: historians reference the inner lives of their subjects only when they have supporting documentation like letters, journals, or memoirs.)
There are three kinds of gaps that sometimes need to be filled with fictional details to keep a story’s momentum going:
- Gaps in time, when we have no idea what our historical characters were doing
- Gaps in space, when we have no information of where they were
- Gaps in understanding, where we know how they acted but have no insight into the chain of logical and emotional cause and effect
Here’s Margaret Atwood describing some of this approach to writing her novel, Alias Grace:
I felt that, to be fair, I had to represent all points of view. I devised the following set of guidelines for myself: when there was a solid fact, I could not alter it; long as I might to have Grace witness James McDermott’s execution, it could not be done, because, worse luck, she was already in the penitentiary on that day. Also, every major element in the book had to be suggested by something in the writing about Grace and her times, however dubious such writing might be; but, in the parts left unexplained—the gaps left unfilled—I was free to invent. Since there were a lot of gaps, there is a lot of invention. Alias Grace is very much a novel rather than a documentary.
In my fiction, Grace, too—whatever else she is—is a storyteller, with strong motives to narrate but also strong motives to withhold; the only power left to her as a convicted and imprisoned criminal comes from a blend of these two motives. What is told by her to her audience of one, Dr. Simon Jordan—who is not only a more educated person than she is but a man, which gave him an automatic edge in the nineteenth century—is selective, of course. It is dependent on what she remembers; or is it what she says she remembers, which can be quite a different thing? And how can her audience tell the difference?Atwood. (1998, December). In Search of Alias Grace: On Writing Canadian Historical Fiction. The American Historical Review, 103(5), 1503–1516. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2649966.
We’ll explore how writers, especially the postmodernists, approach such gaps and conflicts with inventions and interventions another time. For now, as discerning readers, let’s recognize the tension between the need for imaginative freedom and the need to keep a story responsibly anchored in some level of historical reality. Let’s understand how true a work of fiction may be to known, verifiable facts, and where the writer has improvised or imagined their own. Let’s appreciate how that borderline between the known and the unknown creates its own aesthetic energy in a work of fiction. All of this will only deepen our critical reading experience, increase our immersion in the story, and enhance our enjoyment of the craft.
Accuracy and Authenticity are Related but Different Attributes in Historical Fiction
Often, those who take the information-seeking approach (see Frye above) of reading a work of fiction as historical record, make a related conflation of accuracy with authenticity. They might even use these two terms interchangeably.
Accuracy in historical fiction is about how the included details correspond with known facts. When we find a lack of such correspondence, we must decide whether they are inadvertent errors or anachronisms or whether the author had good reasons for their deviations. Some historical fiction authors include notes (much like literary translators’ notes) to ensure readers understand such reasons. Generally, the rationale is related to the gaps and omissions mentioned above or due to conflicting or biased accounts by historians.
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.
A popular example from the movies is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Now here’s a figure who’s been fictionalized so often in prose and film that many readers and audience members don’t know what’s factual anymore. Still, this award-winning movie had several journalists and critics calling out inaccuracies like, for example, Connecticut Congressmen voting against the thirteenth amendment to end slavery in 1865. The writer, Tony Kushner, did eventually concede that it was an error.
To me, authenticity is even more critical. This is about worldbuilding aspects that cannot always be verified as easily as known, recorded facts. It isn’t simply about detailed depictions of period-appropriate clothes, food, language, and social hierarchies. In fact, “info-dumping” is a common complaint against certain types of historical novels. It happens when a writer confuses what Jeff Vandermeer, in Wonderbook, calls “worldview” (what the writer knows about their story) and “storyview” (what the characters know and believe about their world.)
When we discuss this topic in my Historical Fiction workshop, I remind writers that, sometimes, despite all our research and accuracy, readers may not believe some aspects of our storytelling because of preconceived notions. As readers, our understanding and acceptance of authenticity are also shaped by our own worldview, knowledge, other texts we’ve read, and more. For example, the great Umberto Eco was often accused by critics and readers of inaccuracies in his novel, The Name of the Rose (tr. William Weaver.) He would have to remind them of the obscure fourteenth-century texts that he had quoted from.
We’ll discuss how, as writers, we might preempt such disbeliefs with creative literary devices separately another time. And, of course, authenticity is even more tricky when writing an Anglophone novel set in another culture and language. We’ll discuss that too.
The best historical fiction writers value accuracy and aim for authenticity. But we readers need to accept that their interpretations and inventions give us one of several possible representations of the truth.
Let’s close with these words from Walter Scott, widely considered the father of the Western historical novel form, talking about accuracy versus authenticity in this 1817 introduction to Ivanhoe.
It is true that I neither can nor do pretend to the observation of complete accuracy, even in matters of outward costume, much less in the more important points of language and manners. But the same motive which prevents my writing the dialogue of the piece in Anglo-Saxon or in Norman-French, and which prohibits my sending forth to the public this essay printed with the types of Caxton or Wynken de Worde, prevents my attempting to confine myself within the limits of the period in which my story is laid. It is necessary, for exciting interest of any kind, that the subject assumed should be, as it were, translated into the manners, as well as the language, of the age we live in.
What I have applied to language, is still more justly applicable to sentiments and manners. The passions, the sources from which these must spring in all their modifications, are generally the same in all ranks and conditions, all countries and ages; and it follows, as a matter of course, that the opinions, habits of thinking, and actions, however influenced by the peculiar state of society, must still, upon the whole, bear a strong resemblance to each other. Our ancestors were not more distinct from us, surely, than Jews are from Christians; they had ‘eyes, hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions’; were ‘fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer’, as ourselves. The tenor, therefore, of their affections and feelings must have borne the same general proportion to our own.
It is true that this license is confined in either case within legitimate bounds. The painter must introduce no ornament inconsistent with the climate or country of his landscape; he must not plant cypress trees upon Inch-Merrin, or Scottish firs among the ruins of Persepolis; and the author lies under a corresponding restraint. However far he may venture in a more full detail of passions and feelings than is to be found in the ancient compositions which he imitates, he must introduce nothing inconsistent with the manners of the age; his knights, squires, grooms, and yeomen may be more fully drawn than in the hard, dry delineations of an ancient illuminated manuscript, but the character and costume of the age must remain inviolate; they must be the same figures, drawn by a better pencil, or, to speak more modestly, executed in an age when the principles of art were better understood. His language must not be exclusively obsolete and unintelligible; but he should admit, if possible, no word or turn of phraseology betraying an origin directly modern. It is one thing to make use of the language and sentiments which are common to ourselves and our forefathers, and it is another to invest them with the sentiments and dialect exclusively proper to their descendants.Scott, Sir Walter. Ivanhoe. United States: Penguin Publishing Group, 2000.
Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a free publication. Here are some ways you can support the work: