Is Historical Fiction a Good or Bad Thing?

HistoryI have a few writing posts on my site that are a little bit controversial.

One of those posts is my discussion around fan fiction, which you can read here. Every time—and I do mean every time—I share this article on Twitter or on a site it generates a response. (This is not surprising because people that read and write fan fiction come from a place of loving a story or an author. The debate is really around how best to show their love, what is appropriate and what isn’t, and who owns the story.)

On Saturday, I decided to re-tweet some of my writing articles, and just like clockwork I was getting responses to my fan fiction piece. One responder, Vanilla Rose (@MsVanillaRose), asked if that was not the same thing I was doing with my novel A Jane Austen Daydream. I quickly replied that my novel was historical fiction, a re-imagining of Jane’s life as one of her romantic and literary adventures.

It was after a few more tweet exchanges that Vanilla Rose said this, taking my breath away:

“…I think that inventing stuff about a person’s life is more problematic than playing with their work.”

Whoa…

The Granddaddy Genre

Historical fiction has a rich history.

ShakespeareShakespeare did it in many of his plays for examples. Yes, our great bard did a lot of “borrowing” of other’s work; they were not fan fiction, but outright thievery of others’ plots and characters for his own gain. And he also played with the facts of important events… like the history of his country and monarchy. A little bit gutsy, if you ask me.

It could be argued that his history plays are perfect examples of historical fiction, in which fictional characters are put into major historical moments and actual people and events are “tweaked” to fit his narrative. Consider his interpretation of Joan of Arc in Henry VI Part 1 as well as other historical individuals, or the inclusion of the fictional Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V.

We can go even further back with this important genre!

We know, for example, that there was a Trojan War. The ruins have been discovered. And while there were probably great warriors in the siege, the chance of a demigod named Achilles with only a heel for a weak spot was there is… well, how many demigods have you met? Or how many wooden horses have you seen that could hold an entire army?

Yes, it could be argued that Homer’s Iliad was a piece of historical fiction as well, taking real people and events and shaping them for his own narrative.

In the end (or beginning), historical fiction reaches all the way back to the start of storytelling with the tales that were simply told around a fire, taking actual events with added changes to convey morals or lessons for the listeners (adding in, as well, gods and fate). It gave those early lives meaning, making them bigger than what they saw simply around them.

You can see the art we love beginning there, at that fire, and then it building, changing, and becoming more complex as the years progress to our contemporary times. It could then be easily argued that historical fiction gave birth to multiple other genres from mythology to the contemporary steampunk.

To sum up, historical fiction is the granddaddy of all storytelling genres.

The Eternal Question

One of the great foundations of all storytelling is asking the question “What if.” Most stories for authors begin with this question. An idea forms out of that question which grows and grows… and grows as the author searches how to satisfactorily answer it.

The problem is it is hard to take such a simple question out of one’s own contemporary times, or even without considering the times before. For our imagination (no matter how much we don’t want to believe it) is rooted in what we know and what we see around us.

Let me explain this better, even the most imaginative genres, like science fiction and fantasy, start in the time and world of their creator. How do I know this? Well, the best science fiction stories and fantasy stories are always those that give us a character, a moral issue, or an event that we can all relate to on some level. It’s how the writer takes us along on his journey, no matter how far he is going.

It may be funny to bring up Star Trek here, but consider any Star Trek episode you have ever seen (in any of the series). No matter how outlandish the world they are visiting, there is always something about the plot and dilemma that we can relate to on our own contemporary level.

As a storyteller, to be able to successfully ask the question of “What if” you need to accept that the facts on the ground (the ground you know as truth) can be changed, can be “adjusted.”

So, it could be stated that without historical fiction we would not have literature today. Because we would not have the capability to ask this all-important fictional question.

Who Owns a Life?

It is hard not to take Vanilla Rose’s quote above with personal dread. “I don’t want someone making up stuff about me!” we shout, remembering bad memories of junior high or high school and gossip.

Most of us have also had our ID or credit card info stolen at one time or another (I actually had it happen twice; the first time someone took out a Sears credit card with it and maxed it out, the second time the thief bought a cruise to go to Norway). Our lives and the facts around them feel more personal. The time we spend on this planet belong to us until we shuffle off this mortal coil, right?

When I began writing, I first experienced this apprehension around fiction from some of my friends, who would read my work looking for themselves in the pages. It’s not an ego thing that drove them to read my little stories differently from other readers, it’s a natural reaction. And I’m sure even to this day, people I know (or have known) read my books looking for themselves. Oh well…

Recently, I reviewed for WKAR’s Current State the new novel by Matthew Quick, The Good Luck of Right Now (you can read and listen to my review here). That novel is based around letters written to Richard Gere. The book goes farther than just using his name, the main character analyses and debates Richard Gere’s life throughout it. Because of Matthew Quick’s success I can’t imagine Richard Gere not being approached about this book before it was published.

A Jane Austen DaydreamWhen I began my book A Jane Austen Daydream, my hope was to celebrate Jane’s work, and fix what I considered a great injustice in history. Jane, from what little we know historically, did not find success or love in her life. Her books were even published anonymously! My hope was to re-imagine her life as one of her adventures with a few fun literary surprises included. Would I have had the guts to have done this if Jane was still breathing?

It is a moot question. First off, if Jane was around she would be pretty damn popular and probably wouldn’t need me to write Daydream. I also wouldn’t have even been inspired to write the book if she didn’t have the experiences that she did.

What I am saying is overall I needed the history of the actual events to make my historical fiction. History and our view of it shape our reality and our creativity, making historical fiction simply the next step out from our perception.

There are legal limits, of course, in how far you can take historical fiction. We can’t all go making up stories around Richard Gere.

Storytelling has always had a hint of danger to it.

It can inspire masses, break people’s hearts, change minds for good or bad. Just ask Salinger about The Catcher in the Rye if you want some hard proof around that.

Historical fiction is no different because it may shape for some how they may wish to remember events. Luckily, we have actual history to bring us back from the brink. Because no matter how far out historical fiction may go, the actual history is there. Actually, without the actual history there, historical fiction wouldn’t be as much fun. Comparing it to the history, and marking the author’s creativity, can almost be a game.

Historical fiction is not lying or a manipulation or a crime or slander, it is just part of the art of fiction writing. Thinking outside the block. Seeing other possibilities than what the world and time has already decided upon.

Literature needs historical fiction.

 –

Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, CoverIf you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream,  Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous DareMy Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here.  Thanks for reading!

Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.

Rebecca T. Dickson, Editor

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9 responses

  1. Interesting post, Scott! Thanks for directing me to it. One thing to ponder is what the intent of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance writers was when they wrote their works–did they think of it as “historical fiction”? Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote a book about England, including the part when King Arthur almost conquered the city of Rome–but he styles his book a “history.” Sometimes the lines between history and historical fiction are not as clear cut as we think….

  2. Scott, Thanks once again for a great read. Nice, since I can’t sleep right now. Excellent thoughts as usual. I especially like how you pulled Star Trek into the debate. Both of your books are on my to be read list. I think you might enjoy Guiamo as well. It has history, mythology and fantasy all rolled into one! Have a great week.

    Tracey

  3. As someone else writing in the “fictional biography” genre, I don’t see what I’m doing as being any different than any other form of historical fiction. I stick to the facts that we know about this person, and imagine them as I see them occurring. Living in the past keeps me from going crazy in a modern day society full of depressing news stories, Kardashians, and the horrors of autotune.

    I’d never write about anyone still living– I couldn’t be that arrogant. My historical period is at least 100 years ago. If my writing helps some to rediscover these figures, I consider that a good thing.

  4. Pingback: Is Fan Fiction Misinterpreted? | Sara Bird

  5. Thanks for highlighting this, Scott, having just published my first historical fiction I now have a much better understanding of the role this genre has to play in literature. In my book I quoted Rudyard Kipling’s saying, “If history were taught in the form of stories it would never be forgotten.”
    While researching my family tree I came across a young couple (my ggg grandparents) and I tried to imagine what their lives must have been like. They raised a family in a very dark period of Ireland’s history. In writing my book I came across people I had never heard of, who had put great effort into trying to alleviate and highlight the plight of Ireland’s people at that time. I included one of them in my story, a journalist, Alexander Somerville. In my references at the back of the book I printed one of his letters to the Manchester Examiner in 1847. All of his letters are free to read or download online and give a very detailed account of what he personally witnessed in his travels around Ireland. It’s nice to think that long after he has gone, people are still reading about him even if it is in a fictional setting.

  6. From the opinion of a reader, I find that so much Historical Fiction is from so far back in the ages that it’s almost too much work trying to put yourself there, I tend to lean towards more current times. For instance I am reading Strange Birth by Julian David Stone, juliandavidstone.com is his site for more info on his book. But he writes this one set in the 1950’s, vintage NYC. All about TV and how it boomed at the time and shaped what we really see now as far as networks and their practices. It’s very historic in the setting and the story itself, to me that is easier as I can better relate.

  7. Pingback: The Musings & Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard | My Time With Austen: Articles, Interviews and Excerpts

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