I started this post two months ago and have written, re-written and erased the opening paragraph. It started to make sense when I watched Steve Martin and Edie Brickell on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert. They were talking about Bright Star, their new musical. While researching the names of train lines running through Texas in the early 1900s, Brickell found an article about a baby in a suitcase being tossed from a train. Martin referred to actual events such as the Iron Mountain Baby that we read or hear about and never know the beginning or end of the story. Perhaps a need to know the whole story explains the popularity of historical fiction.
The phrase historical fiction is part of the problem. It is too vague and open to interpretation. Historical fiction can be divided into a variety of genres including, but certainly not limited to, mysteries, romance, nautical adventures and tales of the Wild West or Far East. Historical fiction can be defined or delineated by time. Are you interested in prehistory, prehistoric times, medieval knights, the age of exploration, Tudor kings, or the Jazz Age? The glory days of Ancient Rome and Greece are always popular. Are you interested in a specific war? Are you interested in only one country? Do you like to immerse yourself in a series or saga? Better yet, how recently does history begin? The questions are never ending.
Perhaps a more important question is why are you reading historical fiction? What are your expectations of the degree of historic accuracy? Are you looking for a relatively painless way to learn more about a specific period of time? Do you expect actual historical figures? Some scholars differentiate between historic fiction (contains characters who actually existed and are portrayed accurately) and historical fiction (brings history to life). Bottom line – is the purpose to give a face to history and make it possible for readers to relate or reach a better understanding?
History and historical fiction are necessarily not the same thing. the purpose of history is to narrate events as accurately as one can. The purpose of historical fiction is to enable a reader through the perspective of characters in the story to feel that she or he is present at the events. Such a goal obviously requires some modification of the events.
-Andrew M. Greeley
I prefer an actual person and a mix of verified events with enough icing to make the story flow more smoothly. I like Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank and Under the Wide and Starry Sky. Not to proceed too far down the path of a strong woman behind every man, I also enjoyed The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin. In The Hours Count by Jillian Cantor, the author uses a fictional character to take a definite position on the innocence of Ethel Rosenberg. Susan Elia McNeil’s book series featuring Maggie Hope is a good example of a fictional character tying historic events together. Her titles include Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, and Princess Elizabeth’s Spy.
Last questions – does time travel count? Did you learn anything new about JFK’s assassination by reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63?