How Historical is Your Fiction?


To be…or not to be…

Photo Credit: Huffingtonpost.com
Photo Credit: Huffingtonpost.com

Fiction is whimsy, falsification, storytelling at its best, constrained only by the limits of the writer’s imagination. But, when a writer begins to delve into the realm of historical fiction, where does/should the fiction begin and the history end?

The problem with utilizing history and fiction as avenues for entertainment lies first in the audience. To entertain a mainstream audience, a writer cannot venture too far outside of the reader’s frame of reference or experience (usually). This is why you have a lot of heroine’s gallivanting alone in time periods when that would have likely been strictly forbidden. Feminism is relatively new in the grand scheme of things, but to connect with the modern reader, a strong heroine is needed. If you create anything but, you will likely receive the howling critiques of offended feminists everywhere. (Don’t get me wrong here. I myself am a feminist and prefer strong heroines in my fiction.)

That being said, as in every generation, you have your rebels. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have had babies born out of wedlock. Abortion has existed for centuries, mind you. But, the point is, a great deal of the thinking of people in previous eras would be quite foreign to the modern mindset. If one were to write a novel that followed the ideals of some previous era to a T, then it would unlikely be a best-seller. Otherwise, books like Sense and Sensibility (just pulling a familiar title out here as an example) would be on the best-seller list and not the required reading list. Ask anyone who reads only modern literature, the idea of reading a Gothic novel or something from the 17th/18th/19th century is likely to be borderline abhorrent. Here’s the current best seller list, if you’re curious.

Another problem with historical readjustments in fiction is the growing issue of people accepting what they read or see in the entertainment field as fact. If we depict some previous era in a way that allows the modern reader to connect more easily with it, are we in fact doing them a disservice? I ask this because, if they connect with said piece of literature and then accept the historical setting/thinking as accurate, their perception of that time period and many of the struggles that the real people who lived that era will be misconstrued or taken for granted.

There have been a number of instances in film lately where the historical accuracy was called into question. The famous award-winning film Selma was questioned by critics due to its portrayal of the relationship between Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lynden B. Johnson. Read this Washington Post article published in Dec. 2014 about this issue. Also, here’s an interesting article from the New York Review of Books.

Selma isn’t alone though.

When writing, it can be (but isn’t necessarily) a good idea to take into consideration the consequences of what you are writing, at least to some extent. But that’s hard, especially when you have the pressures to produce, the desire to write without constraint and the need to attract readers (or viewers in the case of Selma).

The issue of Selma is an odd one to bring up in this post because that movie is not of the genre of “historical fiction.” If it were a book, it would either be a biography or it would be similar to the concept of the historical novel. From my understanding and perspective, yes, there is a difference between historical fiction and the historical novel. Historical fiction, supposedly, gives the writer more liberty whereas the historical novel is expected to be more in line with the truth. Historical fiction takes place in a time period and may utilize historical events, but overall it is a story that one could imagine taking place in that period. In other words, it fits in some way with the time period. The historical novel has much more strict rules to follow. It’s supposed to be a retelling of a time period or event and is expected to be as faithful to the facts as possible.

In today’s world, it would be so easy to miss these categorical indicators. People either just don’t pay attention to them or they simply don’t know what they are. Also, there are so many spliced and sub genres these days, it’s difficult to keep them straight. Even worse, there are many people out there who immediately believe everything they read or see to be the unadulterated truth of everything.

Personally, I find myself explaining the difference between historical fiction and a historical novel quite consistently. But books like Jayne Anne Phillips’ Quiet Dell really turn genre on its head. This novel is highly researched, but she also takes the liberty of imagining the thoughts and feelings of the victims and tells part of the story from their perspective. This book is a fantastic piece of literature and is one of my favorite reads of 2014, but it does cause a problem when considering genre. It’s difficult to place. And as publishing/writing becomes more fractured and individualized, which is inevitable due to technology and the ability to self-publish, I think it will only get harder to tag.

The issue concerning accuracy in historical fiction is one which I have been pondering lately due to my current dabbling in the genre. I am writing a story that takes place in the 1890s in Baltimore, Maryland. I am working with a subject that is up for debate. Some people believed that Absinthe drove people crazy and to commit ghastly acts of murder. Others (more current researchers and supporters of the beverage) believe that these are salacious rumors spread by the waning wine industry in Europe to try and save their vineyards. The popularity of Absinthe was so great in the 1800s, that wine was losing it’s place in the world and (so I’ve read in some places) threatened the success and continuation of the wine industry.

So I am left with an odd decision. Which interpretation do I follow? Is my interpretation of 1890s Baltimore one in which the fear of Absinthism persists? Or is it one in which they believe the fears to be rumors. I also have to take into consideration the growth towards Prohibition in the United States, because whispers of that were certainly flying around by then.

Personally, I have chosen to marry the two beliefs concerning Absinthe. Some people in the story will believe in the folk illness of Absinthism, while the main character does not. He will be a bit odd, but whether he is actually addicted to the drink and whether or not it causes him to hallucinate will be up to the reader to decide for themselves. Besides, who doesn’t like a good story pervaded by some questionable supernatural-like activity? And I suppose THAT in of itself is the fun part of writing historical fiction.

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4 thoughts on “How Historical is Your Fiction?

  1. If you want to know what people thought/believed in a particular time period read what THEY read. You’re lucky that 1890 is not particularly remote. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was active then and there was a connection between women wanting the vote and ending the sale of booze. I think historical accuracy is important to creating not only a believable but living atmosphere in a novel. Novels are fiction. That’s pretty much the definition of a novel; it is fiction.

    1. I agree ๐Ÿ™‚ And I am lucky in that I have a background in that era of literature already. Research is a huge part of any project. Thanks for stopping by ๐Ÿ™‚

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