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 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.