What is "historical fiction"?
I think that it is, quite simply, fiction set somewhere in history. Though it usually draws on one or more actual events, we get to make up the whos and the whys and the hows.
That isn't to say it isn't accurate, however. Historical fiction, good historical fiction, is well researched and the details of the time period, social situation, and culture should reflect real ideas, technology, and cultural values.
And Here Is JohnParis, 1917
Here is John, beside me again. Sometimes when we meet he gives me a small, courtly bow. Other times he’s tired and he can only muster up a smile as the words “Bonjour, ma belle,” fall out of his mouth. Sometimes his eyes burn feverishly, sometimes they’re dull, sometimes he’s drunk. It depends on where he’s been that day. There are only two things constant about my John: he always manages to smile, and I can always see the fear deep in every line on his face.
Paris is grim; the front is moving closer to the city, and we’re losing more battles than we’re winning. John spends his time here waiting, and afraid. He lost in these brown streets among these brown buildings, as are all the uniformed boys playing soldier.
Only they are not playing, really. Not anymore. Time is short for him, and the front lines rise up and loom in the darkness. He will meet them again soon. He is like a starving man, needing a good meal and a ki
If you have to do the same amount of research, why not nonfiction?
I guess that all depends on your aim. I’m sure everyone who writes either genre has plenty of reasons why they write what they do, but for me, you write historical nonfiction when you want the reality of a situation—or a person—to be preserved. Sometimes nonfiction can be dry as toast, but it doesn't have to be textbook style. The story is all in how you tell it. You take something like 'Maus,' and it’s all true, but an incredible read; illuminating, terrifying, sucker-punching at times, and beautiful to know that someone wanted this truth to be preserved and understood.
Historical fiction is more about broad strokes. You can combine events. You have more flexibility because your story did not actually happen, so you can choose how you want the story to go. I think it’s good for taking people out of specific context, so it erases a lot of preconceived ideas.
For instance, if I want to talk about depression era gang activity, I can write a historical nonfiction story about Bonnie & Clyde. But we all know Bonnie & Clyde, and we have some preset ideas about them that might conflict with what I want to write. Plus, there are limited ideas I can include, because Bonnie & Clyde actually did certain things and did not do other things. But, if I write a story about fictional gangsters, I can include other plausible events. I can build whatever character development I like, to show what I want.
I think this naturally leads to asking, why not make it all up?
Well, I suppose the real question there is, why bother with history? The first and most obvious reason is probably because the writer actually likes history, so the research, while frustrating at times, is actually kind of fun. But more than that, history is important. Whether we are remembering a person or an event, history is our collective memory, and we need it as a benchmark for how far we´ve come, and what went wrong before so we can fix it. Imagine if you didn´t learn from past mistakes: you touch a hot stove and burn your hand, then the next week you touch the stove and burn your hand again. Eventually you´re not going to have a hand if you don´t pay attention.
The point of historical fiction goes one step further, it´s not a book of straight facts. It´s a story, so its goal is to connect with people, and to help them relate. I think, personally, that relating to the past gives you empathy in the now, and a story is a good way to take an idea out of the realm of abstract and make it more tangible. Nothing makes it more apparent to me that everyone should have the right to vote than reading a good story about a time when they didn´t.
Also, I feel I should point out at some point that history as we know it isn't even real. It's very hard to find the amount of necessary information on what you want to write and takes a lot of detective work and reasoning things out. If you imagine you only have one one hundredth of what was happening at X time written down, and then think that information you have is also subjective and probably biased in many ways, well. You have evidence, but, you don't have the whole story. History is basically a collection of viewpoints, and if you're lucky, some context as well. o_O
Knocking on death's doorAnyone who says that dying feels like going to sleep doesn’t know the first fuck about it.
Let me tell you, it aches, even as the doctors and angels come to fill you up with that painkiller which makes you feel numb and void to the world around you; a broken greyhound before the vet sends you to sleep for the last time.
Oh yeah, I’m dying. The doctors say that it’s a tumour in my lungs that’s spread to the rest of my body, taking the life and leaving behind this frail husk of a man on the bed. Pha, I say. They don’t know the first thing about it.
Truth is, I’ve been marked as dying since I first signed my God damn death warrant at Blackhall Pit back in the fifties. My Da was a miner, his Da was a miner, and his Da was a miner. It made sense to follow them down into the depths of the earth, where ancient forests lay asleep for miles around.
It isn’t the tumour that’s killing me, not really. It’s the Pit. Always has been, always will
Christmas on the Border of England and Over ThereIt's snowing on Christmas Eve, and half the men I've ever known in my life are dead. But that was in the war, supposedly a long way away from Oxfordshire, where I am standing outside my brother-in-law's beautiful brownstone house watching the snow quietly cover the hillside beyond. The daylight is dying and it casts the once-white ground in pink, and the pine trees are black against the hillsides, and the truth of it is that the war is not far away because it has followed me here. I am smoking a cigarette, watching the hill, and my mind is slowly counting down the list of men that I once knew, now buried under hills and snow, all of the way from Lorraine to the Rhine. Some of them were my men.
Being an officer is like being a parent; when I left my boys in Paris, despite the Armistice, and despite how many times I reminded myself that they are not my children but in fact, grown men, I felt guilty, and frightened. Land mines don't know that the war has ended, and neither does hunger.
Lest we forget
In Flanders' fields, the poppies blow,
and we who walk among them know
that here men fought, and bravely died
with equal courage, side by side;
the lark has overcome the crow.
We touch the Dead in memory –
embrace them through the century.
The earth enshrines their valiant hearts
in Flanders' fields.
The torch has guttered years ago;
the enemy has been laid low.
And though your names should slowly fade,
your blood a better world has made.
Rest you now where the poppies grow
in Flanders' fields.
Since I've been reading 'Maus'...can historical events oversaturate media?
That’s a heck of a question.
Short answer: yes, it is possible, yes, it should be avoided, except no, in some cases, it shouldn’t.
Since we’re talking about 'Maus,' we’ll just use the very obvious example of WWII. Does WWII saturate the media? Yes. In some ways it oversaturates the media because it is often romanticized, glorified, and spun in ways so egregious that it becomes offensive. And it does overshadow other genocides: I’ve not seen very many stories out there about the Khmer Rouge besides The Killing Fields and 'In the Shadow of the Banyan Tree' (both of which I highly recommend). But, on the other hand, there is a reason everyone is still talking about WWII, isn’t there? The quotes you brought up from Spiegelman are really interesting to me, particularly this one:I never thought of reducing it to a message. I mean, I wasn't trying to convince anybody of anything.
It reminded me strongly of the epigraph of 'All Quiet on the Western Front':This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.
These two particular stories are about events and times that definitely saturate the media (be it the Holocaust or trench warfare). But, the point is they still have something to say, and they have to get it out. These are not glory stories, they are not explosions and romance and fake blood spattering across a screen. They are stories. And we as a people probably need them.
We attach to huge events like the Holocaust or WWII because they are practically unfathomable. We don’t know what happened, really. We know the events, dates, and timelines, but we don’t know what the hell actuallyhappened, why did people do this, what lead men to make the choices they did, and so we write and we film and we paint to find answers. In my opinion, the reason WWII saturates the media is because we’re groping for understanding.
What can/should be done to avoid the oversaturation?
I don't think anything should be done about people like Art Spiegelman adding to the already gigantic list of books about the Holocaust. Good for him. I loved his book and I took something deep and special away from it, despite that already gigantic list of books. I do think where the problem comes in is with the aforementioned glory stories, things that aren't even relating history correctly, because its more convenient for the plot. These are the kinds of things that can distract from the “take away”, or the lessons we could learn from the event, or the real emotion we could have invested in it.
Spiegelman said in the second quote we talked about:Who am I to say? But a lot of the corporations that flourished in Nazi Germany are richer than ever. I dunno... maybe EVERYONE has to feel guilty. EVERYONE! FOREVER!
Or, hopefully we learn something from all that fiction we wrote about it.
A Guide to Writing Combat-Related Mental IllnessComing Back from Combat: A Writer’s Guide to Combat Related Psychological Illness in Fiction
The aim of this guide is simple: plenty of people want to write about war, to explore it, to understand it and understand soldiers they know who are in it or have come from it. But, often times putting the aftermath, the pain, and the psychological impact war has on the mind into words is difficult to do well.
This guide exists to help fiction writers accurately portray psychological disorders in their work, because the people who suffer from these disorders and their loved ones deserve honesty and do not deserve to be misrepresented. The guide is here to help writers understand how these disorders come about, how they are treated, and how to think critically about how they might impact the person who has them.
1. A disclaimer, and polemics.
2. Why are you writing a psychological illness into your story?
3. Terms you should be familiar with for this
Niu eoa EinEin
The world is still.
The deer perk their ears up at the crunch of snow under my fur-lined boots, curious. One paws at the ground nervously before taking flight across the open expanse, the herd following in his wake. They spring lightly over twisted roots and disappear in the fog. Another day, another place, perhaps I would follow, take thrill from the zeal of the hunt.
But today has a different purpose.
The World Tree towers no less than before; if anything, it is wider than I recall. The bough reaches into the very clouds, past hills, past mountains; perhaps even past stars. It matters not. I slide the pack from my shoulder, landing it with a heavy thump on the frozen ground, thundering across the silence. I leave it behind, save for Gungnir and a length of rope, padding my way to the Tree.
The bark is slightly warm something hums in the air and the silence returns when I remove my hand.
The Tree demands blood.
The blood has rushed and pooled into my fin
War StoriesPrineville, Oregon,
The foundation was filling up with water, little by little. There wasn’t much, maybe an inch of rainwater standing, but it was enough. The boss called it. There was a lot of mud, he said, and he didn’t want us hauling pipes into the foundation without solid footing. I didn’t blame him. The longer I stayed down there in the mud, the more anxious I got about it. When he called it, no one had to tell me twice.
I started scrambling out of the foundation hole, my fingers digging into the wet, thick earth, and I slipped back in. God, I hated working in the rain. The boss was standing over me then, offering me a hand down. I took it, and hauled myself out of the hole.
“Sorry, Bill. I know you all want the time on the clock.”
“No, this is a mess,” I said. “Probably should just call it all off.”
“Give an hour, and take a smoke break. Watch the kids for me, will you? If it clears up, you go back
I think part of the reason Holocaust stories are prevalent is accessibility, too. Should we be doing more to tease out non-Western narratives?
I know what you mean about the idea of relating to the event. Clearly, if you live in the Occident, WWII is much easier to relate to, and the Holocaust something that is more in our minds. Something like what happened under the Khmer Rouge is very distant, both physically and culturally. Or perhaps it is just that WWII was on such a bigger scale that it blots out other things, which seem smaller by comparison (they are not, but we are humans, and humans often need to compute things in numbers, I find.)
As far as teasing out stories about other cultures, genocides, or historical events which overshadow other events, I think it's a matter of getting interested. Maybe someone interested in historical fiction decides to try something new, and we get a book or a film that becomes popular. The Last King of Scotland brought a lot of awareness about what happened in Uganda during the Idi Amin years, and The Killing Fields is a great film (which stars the guy from Coach!), which is what renewed some general interest in Cambodian history. I also think it is a good thing for authors in general to meet as many different types of people as they can. I think the personal connection generates interest in something we hadn't known about before.
Do you think historical fiction can serve as a warning, or is it still escapist? Can empathizing be a bad thing?
I think that people naturally relate things to their own experiences, so oftentimes they do empathize with the historical stories they read, or draw parallels between the history and modern day events. If you've got a story about WWII soldiers, it's still easy enough to think of an Iraq war veteran's experiences and wonder how the emotions of the two might be similar.
I recently read a book about the life and role of women in China in the early 1800s called 'Snow Flower and the Secret Fan', and found myself feeling grateful for what I have in the present, and thinking about what I would have felt had I been in their situation. I think we do that with all books and movies we read/see. When it's historical fiction, we just also happen to know that it was possibly true. That gets you thinking.
But I also think there can be an element of escapism, yes. What did that Woody Allen movie call it? —Golden Age Thinking, where people get so caught up in nostalgia for the past and disappointment with the present that they try to go back in time via books to relive something they think is 'better'. But this is what I was talking about with "romanticizing" the past—being a gentlewoman in the Regency era might seem great and all, but giving up the right to vote, speak freely, manage your own finances, work, etc; giving up medical advancements, social advancements, and hello, very comfortable shoes and blue jeans, is not so great.
Often times we look at things with a modern lens (that's why I think romanticizing happens), and we don't understand or don't believe something could have been that way. But, history is pretty vulgar and never PC.
The Cartographer's DaughterEvery night, he would fold her into his arms before she slept. Creases grew into her, turning brown with wear, and she loved them. When she woke up in the night, dreaming of darkness, he would take her to his desk and draw for her a map of her face, turning it into another world. Tracing the contours of her smile, he would scrawl a warning, "Here be monsters", whispering to her that she was a dragon when angry.
As she grew older, she populated his maps with creatures and peoples from the books she read, or her own creations. He taught her to draw, and to write with an old inkpen, in a cursive script her teacher could make neither head nor tail of. She made him angry once, drawing in the drying sand with her finger, and smudging the ink. When he was angry, mountain ranges grew across his forehead and caverns opened in his cheeks. Here be lions.
Walking home from school, she knew the local area inside out; from the maps he had drawn and taught her. He would copy them onto o
The War of End LaneJane wiped her palms on her apron, and reached over to shake the woman’s hand. The counter was between them, laden with meat pies, fish pies, vegetable pies and pies that might have contained anything.
‘This is Mademoiselle Yvette Le Tellier,’ said Charles. ‘His Lordship and I brought her back from Paris. Yvette, this is Jane Tyler, a very good friend of mine.’
Yvette was dressed like an aristocrat, and the lace flowing from her elbows brushed against the pie crusts. Her skirts took up the space of three people. Her face and hands were powdered white. Her wig was powdered too, and fell in stiff ringlets around her face.
‘Enchanté, Mademoiselle Tyler,’ said Yvette. ‘It is a very wonderful friend you have in Charles. Why, he all but whisked me from under the blade of la guillotine herself! Such a brave and clever man!’
‘Yeah, I suppose,’ said Jane. ‘What kind of pie would you like?
Two Years After That Night In NasiriyahAfter I came back from my second tour of duty, that’s when things fell apart with her. She left. Or I left. It doesn’t really matter which.
It was because I couldn’t explain. Even in therapy, even recounting, writing journals, writing fiction, writing speeches, I could not explain. Or no one else could understand, not through listening, or tv spots, or reading newspaper clippings. You had to have been there, or you just couldn’t understand. Some things you can know, but never Know until you’ve been there.
The desert is like that. You can’t know the actual weight of a rifle or the feel of sweat soaking the canvas uniform under the straps of your pack, of how heavy that rifle is, but isn’t, because you are used to it now, like your own limbs, looking over the sandy flats while the heat makes waves in the cloudless, pale sky. You can’t know that. You can see it, and you can imagine it, but you don’t know it, because you don’t kno
Do historical writers today have to be more cautious/PC, following criticism of movies like Django Unchained?
Well, I would say that modern attitudes need to be kept in mind. I have advised before, with regard specifically to war fiction, not to write something polemic unless you can stand behind it, because chances are you're going to offend someone (or a lot of someones).
But, at the same time, I do worry that caution leads to being PC, and that's not telling a good historical story. History WAS cringeworthy, and so it would be a pretty big slap in the face to all the people who suffered through it to pretend that things were all peace, love, and organic food. Personally, I liked Django Unchained a lot, and yeah, it was flippant, but I think it had a serious takeaway. Americans learn about slavery, sure, but it was a lot different watching a girl get put in a hot box and beaten than it was to read about it in a textbook.
I actually saw the movie in Spain, and the people I live with asked me afterwards “did things like that really happen in your country back then?” and I was reluctantly forced to say yeah, some of it did. But hell, we all learned something, didn't we?
You focus your writing around the Great War. Is this something aspiring historical fiction writers should do, or does it happen naturally?
Well, of course since it's my pet period, as it were, I think everyone should study it, but but variety is the spice of life. Writing different periods or different types of stories will make anyone a stronger historical fiction writer. Plus, war fiction is its own hot mess in terms of research and writing, so it´s not necessarily something I would suggest people start with.
Becoming BrianThe soldier coming up on him was swaying, limping, climbing wearily up the stony street towards the terrace. He walked like an old man, thought Brian Strong, though he was scarcely older than Brian himself. He dragged himself along, tripping over the cracks in the cobblestones, hauling behind him a filthy rucksack all covered in gray trench clay. Pausing by the café, the old boy took off his garrison cap and worried it between his black-tipped fingers.
"Well, hey," said Brian Strong. "Sit down and have a drink on me."
Regarding him for a moment, the soldier conceded and sat.
Brian Strong ran his hands over a perfectly polished uniform and propped his shiny-shoed feet up on the trumpet case under his table. The fellow soldier opposite him rested his head on his hand and, though his eyes seemed hollow, Brian thought with a good night's sleep and a shave he'd be right as rain. He looked like a man who had seen things, thought Brian, and done things. A worldly man. He saw now that t
Any closing thoughts for the aspiring historical fictionist?
Maybe just a few tips.
Remember that research is going to take up the bulk of your time on your project. Try to do it first as much as possible. But, don't worry and don't be surprised if you need to stop halfway through to research something that hadn't come to mind until you reached the scene where it happened.
Remember that the story is not the historical event, but that history is your backdrop; the story must be your own.
Get acquainted with your time period as much as possible through primary sources. And remember to get them from all sides of any conflict.
Do not shy away from writing something that would have been true because you are afraid of how people with modern values might react to it. If you don't want to be misrepresented as the author, you can always put in a note at the beginning stating your actual view.
Do not just read other historical fiction. Read everything you come across.
Know why you're writing something historical. Why do you need it to be historical versus writing it in a modern setting? Know what your setting lends to your story, and why it's important to you.
That's about it. I don't know what I else could include that I don't find applicable to all fiction writing. Maybe I'll just quit while I'm ahead, and say good luck.