Albert Camus once said “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
If you ask me, historical fiction is the truth through which we tell lies.
There are lots of reasons to read historical fiction. Either you have an interest in a certain era or perhaps you hold a fascination about a personality that we either admired or despised. Usually, choosing to read about either of these via fiction is a way to investigate the subjects, without being subjected to tomes of facts that are often tediously detailed. This isn’t to say that non-fiction can’t be fascinating. However, for those of us who need a bit of fantasy mixed into our reality; historical fiction is the way to go.
Over the years, I’ve read a good deal of historical fiction. The history I’ve read about goes back to the beginning of man itself. Yes, I was one of those who, back in the 80s, got hooked on Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear and then waited with bated breath for every new installment. It was no surprise that when Colleen McCullough came out with her “Masters of Rome” series in the 90s, I was devouring each and every one of them, as soon as they came off the (paperback) presses.
This past year alone, I read two historical fiction books about France. The first was The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood, which takes place before the Revolution. The other was Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb, about Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife. After enjoying these two books, if I come across another novel about this era, I’m sure I’ll be easily tempted.
And I never know what will tickle my fancy. For instance, while horror has never been my genre, I did enjoy The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova which investigates what might have happened if Bram Stoker’s imaginary Dracula was real and still recruiting. But being from Chicago my interest to the novel Loving Frank by Nancy Horan, was obvious. Who from that city wouldn’t want to read about Mamah Borthwick Cheney, the woman who became the lover of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright?
I don’t read just any historical fiction books, and I often avoid the most popular ones. That’s why I’ve never read any Philippa Gregory, for instance, despite my fascination surrounding England’s Tudor period. Admittedly, I do own one of her books, but I’ve yet to read it. The reason for this is because I fear her books may focus too much on the romance for my taste. This, of course, is the first drawback of historical fiction – taking a perfectly good time in history and turning either real or fictional characters into sentimental lovesick calves or worse, sex maniacs.
Another drawback of historical fiction is when the author forgets that they’re writing fiction and not a biography. This only happens with stories based on the lives of real people. Seriously, if you’re fictionalizing someone’s life, we don’t really need to know every last detail of every week of their lives. Yes, I know it is hard to resist, especially if that person lived during an era that’s chock-full of amazing things going on. Believe me when I tell you that we will totally forgive you for taking literary license to condense events as well as cut out things. We realize it is fiction, so go ahead and chop away.
Another drawback of historical fiction comes from bad research. Fudging things a bit to keep the story going is one thing. But getting things obviously wrong is something that’s a major bugbear of mine. There have been times I fervently wished I could have gotten the gig checking Jewish and Israeli references in stories I’ve read. Of course, few people would accept my authority on the subject, but I do know my stuff in these areas – or at least more than some of the consultants these writers have used. I’ve had times when I’ve actually screamed at the texts, because they were so terribly incorrect.
The greatest drawback and my #1 no-no of historical fiction is, if you’re writing in present tense, DO NOT tell me something that will happen in the character’s future. If that event or piece of information is important to the story, it should come up chronologically in the book. If not, it doesn’t belong there at all! This becomes worse if it involves an event we know is going to happen. For example, if the story is written about someone living in New York in August 2001, we know what’s going to happen only one month later. Please don’t tell us during the August part of the story, what the character is going to experience on or after September 11! Mind you, if the story is being told in retrospect, this can be excused, to a certain extent. One writer who uses this type of foreshadowing often, and sometimes to extreme (usually taking the story off into a long, rambling tangent), is John Irving. However, because his stories are written in past tense, this isn’t as much of a problem.
When a historical fiction novel can avoid these pitfalls, it can be a wonder to behold. I’ve been lucky, since most of the historical fiction I’ve read has been generally successful, and their draws have outweighed or avoided most of these drawbacks. That’s why I think, if I’m going to read about truths, I’ll continue to read about them through the lies of this fascinating genre.