Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How Historical Does Fiction Need to Be?

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction This seems to be my year for writing a lot of historical fiction, mainly the Our Australian Girl series, but also a big revision of my pirate novel, Pirate X. I have one book about writing historical fiction on my shelves but it's old and pretty useless, so I was interested to see a new one out - The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction: Researching and Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom.

I've only just started reading it, but already he's saying some interesting things about what historical fiction is, and what history is. A few years ago, there was a bit of a stoush about Kate Grenville's book, The Secret River, with historians complaining that she'd taken liberties with "the facts". Thom makes some good points about this, such as:
To be blunt about it, much of the history of many countries and states is based on delusion, propaganda, misinformation, and omission.

Certainly, I think people now realise that, for example, in war that the history is written usually by the victors. And that the history of women and the poor is almost non-existent because scholars and historians of the time believed it wasn't relevant or important. Thom also says:
A good historical novelist has the same obligations as a good historian: to convey a truthful history, not perpetuate pretty myths.

He seems to be the kind of historical novelist who prides himself on deep research and accuracy, and perhaps that's a choice you make when you write historical fiction - whether you are going to stick to the facts you discover, or make history fit your story/plot.

I'm sure you've heard the saying, "Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story". With some historical fiction, it can be more a case of truth hampering a well-constructed plot. There's nothing worse than a plot that ambles along in a series of small episodes that don't ultimately go anywhere, and sometimes history is like that. Life does just trot along. Perhaps the key is in choosing a period in history where there is some cataclysmic event that you can lead up to, that will be your natural climax. From there, you have to make sure your characters also have the same rising arc in their personal journey through the story.

In revising Pirate X, I used, as extra research, two new books that hadn't been published when I wrote earlier drafts. I decided to take the new (different) material into account and change my story, but ultimately what I really focused on was the characters and how events affected and changed them. I think there is a spectrum in this genre - at the one end you have HISTORICAL fiction, where the author sticks absolutely to the facts and can cite a bibliography.

At the other end is historical FICTION, where history is a background but the author adapts if necessary. Pirate X is much nearer the first than the second, but I have quite a few imaginary characters in among the "real" ones. The key for me is to try to imagine what it was like back then, to imagine myself into my characters, and see through their eyes. That's the real challenge for a novelist.


Sheryl Gwyther said...

Fascinating, Sherryl - I'll keep my eye out for that book. I, too, like to weave history into my stories - most of the time, I have to rely on instincts for storytelling rather than organisation, so I really would like to have more 'scaffolding' while I write.
I love Kate Grenville's book about writing the Secret River, called 'Searching for the Secret River'. Excellent book for writers of historical fiction.

Dee White said...

I agree Sherryl that truth can get in the way of a good story.

I'm looking forward to reading the 'Our Australian Girl series'.

Sherryl said...

Sheryl - I thought Grenville's book about how she researched and wrote 'The Secret River' was fascinating, too. I'll let you know my opinion of the how-to book when I've finished it!

Sherryl said...

Dee- they'll all be out next year. It'll feel like it's raining Australian Girls!

Tracey said...

According to the articles I have, a big part of the Grenville furore arose because she allegedly claimed the novel was a new type of history writing, which she later disputed. And on radio she said that a novelist can get inside the experience of what it was like, which apparently upset the historians who thought that implied that historians lacked the imagination of fiction writers to understand what it was really like.

And then, to make matters worse, Grenville transposed events (like the slapping of an Aboriginal man), so one historian labelled the novel not only not historical but ahistorical, whereas to me Grenville was doing exactly what you're talking about: and that's putting the story first. (And as for transposing the event -- I think she drew on it, was inspired by it, and used the idea in a different context...)

Perhaps our historian friend would argue that all novels that draw on histories should be, as you say, HISTORICAL novels because history is her passion, whereas most of us fiction writers would argue they should be historical NOVELS because story is our passion. Or perhaps the historian wouldn't even care as long as authors don't try to say that what they're doing is writing history.

I love The secret river and its companion book -- the novel made me experience that period of Australian history in a way no history book has ever been able to, whether or not history is strictly observed.

Great post!

When's _Pirate X_ coming out?

Sherryl said...

I think the historians over-reacted - no novelist would ever say they are writing history. They might pride themselves on sticking as closely as possible, however. In schools in the US, historical fiction must have a full bibliography to be considered for classroom use, but we all know how dissecting something for school can kill the enjoyment of it!
Personally, I think you can do anything you want as long as readers understand the parameters you used. That's what the extra material pages are for!
Pirate X is due out around August 2011, I think. I think I'll be adding a small disclaimer, acknowledging sources, but 1717 is not a time from which great amounts of documentation was freely available to me. Actually going to the places made a big difference, though.

D.M. McGowan said...

Historians might tend to over-react when they find the fiction selling better than their heavily researched history.
The trouble with the history is that it is all about the facts but the story was made by people and will be read by people.
I read the facts about the many women that homesteaded in Western Canada. Yes, they did and it's a nice story in today's world where women are usually accepted as partners in the construction of society. However, during the era of homesteading, when women had trouble being recognized as human it wasn't quite like that. Yes, a woman could homestead but, depending on who her land agent was she might find it impossible to "prove up" and get a deed for her land.
One view is history ... the other view is historical fiction.
Unless you happened to be the woman that could get ownership and then it wasn't too entertaining.

Sherryl said...

Dave, I like the way Thom talks about historians giving you the facts, but historical novelists' aim is to make you feel as if you are (were) there!