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History Into Fiction: The Writer's Art of Recreating the Past

Lies, Damn Lies, and Historical Fiction

In Great Britain, historical fiction is serious business.

Exhibit A is the Booker Prize, awarded each year for the best novel written by a citizen of the British Commonwealth, Ireland, or Zimbabwe. Eight of the last ten shortlists for the prize have included a novel set during the 19th century, according to The Guardian.

All the more reason to sit up and take sharp notice of James Forrester’s thought-provoking blog essay on “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.”

Most historians to whom I’ve spoken on the subject look down their noses at the genre as a necessary evil, at its best bringing some light, however dim, on the past for the unwashed masses, while at its worst poaching the precious hidden eggs that they and their fellow scholars have been slowly and carefully incubating, sometimes for decades.

Imagine my surprise and delight, then, to find that Forrester—the pen name for Dr. Ian Mortimer, acclaimed British biographer of medieval subjects and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society—has offered up a rather empathetic view of the conflicting demands placed upon the historical novelist.

I’ll leave it for the reader to enjoy the full breadth of Forrester’s measured judgment in his article, but suffice it to say that he refuses to lash the historical novelist to the mast and flog him for deviating from “the facts” when justified by the demands of the story.

A couple of appetizers to send you off to the main course:

— “The path a historical novelist has to tread is clearly beset by dangers. There is an inherent tension between trying to do something new and something old at the same time.”

— “Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story.”

— “In creating good historical fiction, it is essential to tell lies.”

The readers’ comments on the essay are also entertaining. Taking issue with Forrester’s assertion that ‘[t]he historian will assure you that the facts are the story,” one protester, apparently a historian himself, replied:

“No we won’t. You really ought to get out and meet more historians who’ve learned their trade since oh, I dunno, probably about 1955.”

Rabasa’s Rules for the Literary Researcher

Don’t miss novelist George Rabasa’s superb essay in The Huffington Post on the effective use of research for historical fiction. It’s one of the best treatments of the subject that I’ve come across in a long time.

Excerpting from his contribution to Views from the Loft: A Portable Writer’s Workshop, Rabasa offers a list of what he calls Ten Exhortations for the Literary Researcher. All ten rules are gems, but four in particular ring  true for me:

* Keep in mind that someone out there reading your book knows more about your subject than you do.
* Don’t worry too much about that person.
* Don’t confuse facts with details. Facts are stones. Details are wings. The astute researcher smells out the telling detail like a pig rooting after truffles.
* Whenever you don’t know something when you’re writing, make it up. You’ll be surprised how true it is when you check later.

And here’s a prescription by Rabasa that’s sure to raise the hackles of those who want their historical fiction to lean more towards history and less towards fiction:

My last point is that as much as I value solid research, the novelist shouldn’t let reality get in the way of a good story. Facts are overrated. A writer’s view is necessarily personal. The rivers in the landscape bend to his or her purpose. The lives of the rich and famous can take delightful turns in the service of fictional mayhem and scandal. On the other hand, if you’re writing about opera singers, death row inmates, crooked accountants, or native speakers of Catalan, you’d better get it absolutely right. You’ll be surprised how many readers you have when the mail comes in deriding you for inaccuracies in the depiction of brain surgery, tightrope walking, or murder by gunfire, poison, or pillow.

Quote of the Day: James Wood

“I dislike most historical novels: science fiction facing backwards.”

— James Wood, literary critic for The New Yorker in his review of Adam Fould’s novel, The Quickening (June 28, 2010; p. 67) .