“I won’t read that historical fiction garbage,” hissed a lady at the assisted living facility where a panel consisting of myself and other writers were describing our writing process. “History should be facts, not made up crap,”
Interesting question. Why would anybody want to read a fictionalized version when they can read a history book and get the real facts? What is historical fiction anyway?
Some books under the historical fiction umbrella may have other-worldly or supernatural themes. Some may pose what if questions, such as what if Hitler had won World War II. Others could be more historically accurate than the word fiction implies. The general criteria is that they be set at least 50 years in the past.
Historical novels may use fictional characters to transport us to a particular place and time so we may experience the protagonist’s world as someone living during that time might. We could pursue a German saboteur through New York City during WWI with the police detectives in James Hockenberry’s Over Here (www.jameshockenberry.com). Soraya M. Lane lets us feel the joys, the fears and the heartbreaks of British war brides, as they follow their American G.I. sweethearts to the United States in Voyage of the Heart (sorayalane.com). Or we can experience World War I through the eyes of the early women battlefield nurses, complements of Lizzy Page’s novels War Nurses and Daughters of War (www.bookouture.com).
In another type of historical novel, the author imagines how an historic figure or a real-life person lived through an historic event. Through extensive research, physical retracing of the route and the woman’s written account, James Alexander Thom in Follow the River (www.ballantinebooks.com), takes us along with Mary Ingles, a white woman abducted by American Indians, as she escapes her captors and undertakes a treacherous journey through a thousand miles of hostile, uncharted wilderness to find her way back to her home.
But does an author using his/her imagination to fill in gaps or flesh out a real event make it less accurate? From TV detective shows, courtroom dramas and our own experience, we know that eyewitness accounts differ. People’s recollections of an incident are affected by their perspective. So we may never know the absolute truth. But the more corroborating information we obtain, the more we can trust that our conclusion is reasonably accurate.
In Little Cyclone, author Airey Neave tells us that in July 1942, Dédée, the real life leader of the Cométe underground, is ambushed by German soldiers. Neave writes: The party of airmen were scattered till Dédée, coolly collecting them, took them back to Urrugne, whence they crossed two days later. Neave’s book is nonfiction. His statement is true and accurate, but it doesn’t go into much detail.
Digging through evader reports, I found the same incident. So for my novel Night and Fog, in addition to Neave’s account, I had the perspective of the airmen evaders who were actually there. I knew where they were from, when and where the narrow escape took place, who the guides were, what the weather was like, who was shot at, who was captured and how others got away. I used this information to recreate the scene as I imagined it. I had to fill in minor details and dialog—which makes it historical fiction—but it lets readers experience the incident as if they were there.
There will always be people who turn up their noses at historical fiction just as there are people who say they hate cauliflower without ever tasting it. But there are writers like the ones mentioned above who are publishing some truly wonderful historical fiction that should be sampled before the genre is dismissed out of hand.