Thinking About Historical Fiction

Most people understand that history and historical fiction are not the same thing. While history attempts to narrate events as accurately as possible, historical fiction attempts more than just the dramatizing of those events into prose. All the rules of story-telling still apply. There must be fully-fleshed characters, who sometimes are as much a mystery to themselves as they can seem to us. There must be conflict. And finally there must be some reason for telling the story, some revelation or transformation, whether it is on grand historical themes or on a more minute scale, that keep the reader engaged to the very end.

I’ve read more than a few submissions to Circa that have not taken this into consideration. They take a key moment in history, say the assassination of J.F.K. They call it “The Assassination of J.F.K.” or “The Day Kennedy Was Shot” or something. Then they describe the day from the perspective of a hitherto anonymous bystander, a member of the crowd or one of the members of security perhaps. How the sun glistens on the motorcade, warming the red brick of the Book Depository, the crowd’s growing excitement as the motorcade slowly purrs along the asphalt. Then the unthinkable (which is, alas, totally thinkable). Gunshots ring out, as you knew they would, and everyone is suitably horrified. Somebody at some point will say that life will never be the same again.

But meaning doesn’t lie in the chain of events, only in the writer’s interpretation of them.

From the beginning there must be something at stake, some twist to capture the reader’s interest, or promise of a differing point-of-view from the accepted one, or single character on whom the events impact in a unique way. Otherwise what is the point?

History may provide a mine of potential plot devices and character-types but the writer still needs to do the work. Structure the story. And tell the reader something new.

One thought on “Thinking About Historical Fiction

  1. One of the historical fiction authors I interviewed referred to finding the ‘dramatic arc of historical events’ in order to create a compelling story. That sticks with me as a fundamental premise in shaping historical fiction.

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