Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

Resources for Writers

On Developing Conflict and Structure

House Eyes

Historical, or Fiction?

Historical fiction is one of those strange literary creatures that has one paw firmly planted in reality and the other in story. Writers in this genre are constantly asking themselves: should the emphasis be on historical, or on fiction?

I’ve always loved John Gardner’s description of writing as the creation of a fictional dream for readers that immerses them completely in the story. One quick way to break that dream is to get your facts wrong. So…research is important.

But another way to wake the dreamer is to dwell on facts at the expense of story. So… storytelling is also important.

In the few years I’ve been writing in this genre, I have discovered three sad but important truths.

Truth #1: information, in and of itself, is often dry and boring to read.

Truth #2: there is a direct correlation between the amount of time a writer has spent finding said information, and the strength of their desire to work as much of it into the novel as they can.

Truth #3 (the saddest one): if you do your job well as a historical fiction writer, a lot of that hard-won information will never make it into the novel at all.

Here’s the thing. Even though a historical novel should be firmly embedded in the period in which it is set, the bottom line is: it’s not a history book, and we are not history teachers. Our job is to get readers to care about the characters, to make them want to find out what will happen next.

There are times when I have to post that reminder onto my laptop screen, while I stare longingly at the stack of notes beside me all about the intricate workings of the East German secret police, or the many interesting facts I’ve compiled about the Berlin Wall. It’s wonderful stuff, all of it, and I worked so hard to get it. Including it would enrich the story world and make it that much more accurate. But I know, without even needing my crit partners to yell at me, that if I were to include it all, it would slow the story down. And story is my number one concern.

A history book tells us what happened during a particular time and place; historical fiction should show us what it felt like to be there. Authenticity is the goal—immersing the dreamer in a historical moment so that when they wake up they feel not as if they’ve studied history, but as if they’ve lived it.

michelle barker

Michelle Barker is the author of The House of One Thousand Eyes, a historical novel for teens published by Annick Press. Her picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, was a finalist for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award.

Michelle has an MFA in creative writing from UBC and works as a workshop leader and editor in Vancouver.


Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.