How History Leads to Historic Fiction

How History Leads to Historical Fiction

I write historical fiction, and I’m quick to admit that I’m not a historian. I just love to write about the past. Flip open the pages of a historical novel and you are thrown into another time. A woman in Ireland during the potato famine digs for bits of food. A child of the Industrial Revolution in England toils in a textile mill. A man trapped in a coal mine in Wales dares to cuss as he prays. In historical fiction, these characters live on the page as they once lived in time. They tell us their story, and in this way they tell us about history.

Since the beginning of language, storytellers have created tales steeped in history. History is the greatest source of both information and story. As listeners and readers of historical fiction, we too revel in history—we are entertained, enlightened, horrified, engaged.

My forthcoming novel, Shattered Tears for My Homeland, takes place during the turbulent years of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. I have spent over a year on research alone, reading archived newspapers and magazines, interviewing people, viewing documentaries and black-and-white films, and thumbing through the dog-eared volumes of history. A daunting task? Of course. But I need correct information, lots of it, and I need to understand it so well that it almost becomes part of me. My handwritten notes are voluminous—even in this technological age, huge quantities of paper go into research. With all the files and folders, and folders within folders, I sometimes think I’m obsessed. I’m sure you can picture this, and perhaps you are chuckling. I’m chuckling too, but it has all paid off.

During all of this, I have begun to learn the difference between the history that historians write and the historical fiction that novelists write. Reading history is like going on a journey of ifs, maybes, could bes and can’t bes. Novelists take those ifs, maybes, could bes and can’t bes and do wonderfully creative things with them. But I understand now why historians cringe at the release of a historical novel: sometimes historical fiction produces historical distortion.

If you gathered all the historians in the world and put them together in a hall, they would disagree on almost everything. History is generally scripted by the victors. Where go the spoils, so goes history. But some history is written by the vanquished, and their perspective is entirely different. They tell another tale. It is for this reason that the accuracy of history is always in dispute. Just as there are two sides to every coin, there are two sides, at least, to every piece of history. What is a novelist to do?

As a writer of historical fiction, I investigate all points of view. Readers, I believe, should be able to identify with more than one side. They should know how the vanquished feel crawling out of the ashes, overcoming the obstacles. This makes writing historical fiction challenging, but it is worth it. It takes a long time to write a novel, longer than I had imagined. Sometimes my patience wears thin and I find myself wanting to plough through to the end. I must dedicate the time it takes, however long that turns out to be. I cannot afford errors or falsehoods.

History scholars excavate facts from the past. They unearth precise dates, capture victories and losses in battles and wars, cite lives lost, redraw maps. They name rulers, despots, tyrants, heroes. They analyze the results of treaties.

But when those treaties fail, like the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I, the historical novelist might illuminate a broader truth, a universal truth, as it was lived at a certain time in the past. The novelist writes the bigger scene, the scene of ordinary people, how they survived with everything stacked against them, and in that way the novelist takes the reader to the doorstep of history.

How does the novelist do this? Through convincing, well-developed characters that transport the reader into another time. The characters of historical fiction relive the past by experiencing it in the present. They wake to the sound of tanks rolling through the town and flee the shaking house. If I have researched my history properly, I will know what happens to that town, and that will determine what my characters do next. Do they run to the streets, to the forest, to bomb shelters? What are the names of the streets? Is there even a forest? Did bomb shelters exist? Are my characters engulfed by bullets or by flames? Do sirens scream? Do radios blare? What are the messages? Who lives? Who dies?

The historical novelist gleans the rubble of the past, tasting the grit, extracting the jewels. History becomes an eyewitness account, and we, the readers, live the scene. And as we do, we learn, we appreciate, and we vow never to forget the past.

About Sheila Bali

Sheila Bali, historical fiction writer, is soon to complete her novel, Swans and Cranes, based on a family’s escape from the iron grip of post–WW II Russia during the turbulent 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The book focuses on a young girl’s experiences as her family’s world is uprooted, forcing them to flee their home and country to save their lives. Sheila holds a Fine Arts Degree from Concordia University, plus two graduate degrees from McGill University in art education and special education. She now lives in San Francisco Bay Area of California and paints with colorful words. Sheila is a member of CWC Tri-Valley Branch.
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26 Responses to How History Leads to Historic Fiction

  1. Pamela says:

    Yes, this is why I love to READ historical fiction – I learn so much by the characters, who are living history. And yes, in any genre, the characters must be convincing and well-developed (and likeable, I believe!). Nice post.

  2. Timothy Cook says:

    It was with some pleasure that I read your little post about writing historical fiction. And I share with you the passion to turn the dry facts of history into living, breathing human interactions.
    Also, it seems to me that as writers of historical fiction, there should be an obligation to answer some of the what ifs, could bes and maybes of our more learned “real historians.”
    Anyway, good luck with your endeavors!

  3. mist_writer says:

    I loved the site and the article. I also love writers who take history and live it through their characters. YOu write amazing and entertaining words. Thank you for sharing with us and letting us go on the journey through history with you. Please keep Me informed of your wonderful writing. You are a blessing to read. thank you and hugs and love. 🙂

  4. Sherrie says:

    I agree. Bringing the past into the present with realistic fictional characters. My picture book brings a little history about past presidents, historical monuments, and such by way of a class field trip to Washington, D.C. It goes deeper by personifying the Washington Monument by giving it eyes and the character develops somewhat of a relationship with these mysterious eyes. I guess I am skittish about sending the manuscript back. I don’t have time to market the book myself with self publishing. I sent it in to one publishing house that accepted it but then asked for $4000 to pay for the cost of the pubilist. They did not advertise as Vanity publishing beforehand. I’m in a quandary about what to do next.

  5. Susan says:

    I’m not an historian either, so when I wrote A Story of the West, I had to research first. My story takes place in the American west. I could find a lot information on historical events, but little on day to day living. Sometimes I had to use my imagination on how it would have been done. I’m a stickler for accuracy and people have told me I did a good job.

    Great post.

    • Barbara Anne Waite says:

      I enjoyed reading this blog post. I really appreciate knowing the background of the writing process. I enjoy historical fiction. I always look for notes from the author about their research and how the book came about. I also enjoy reading memoirs. Both genres have something significant to add to our reading experience. A year ago I published a memoir taken from my grandmother’s letters and diary written 100 years ago when she taught in new state of Arizona. It has been interesting to see that many enjoyed reading Elsie’s own words about daily life as a teacher in rural Arizona. Others have written that they were bored by diary entries that showed life was often a repeat of the day before. I edited out many days that seemed repititious but wanted the book to tell in Elsie’s words how days were filled with visiting friends, washing clothes in the creek, riding burros bareback and always reading books. Some asked why I did not attempt to create a novel from Elsie’s journal entires and letters. I somehow felt this was Elsie’s story to tell. Thus it became “interpretive history.” Because it is not a novel but Elsie’s actual words it has sold very well in National Parks and museums in Arizona. Elsie’s story contains a love story, a tragedy and along with that details of daily life in 1913. I think we need to read with different expectations from a memoir or from historical fiction. I look forward to reading Sheila’s book.
      Barbara Anne Waite Author “Elsie-Adventures of an Arizona Schoolteacher 1913-1916”

  6. Adam says:

    Great post, Sheila.

    Having been trained as an historian myself I’ve come to believe that good, well researched historical fiction can teach history, and make it far more accessible, than most classroom experiences. In both my degrees I never once had a reading list that included historical fiction – and there should have been some included.

    The great thing about being a historical novelist is that you can dig deeper and, based on the research and available information, create a plausible situation. I write about the ancient world and what I like about that is that there are so many gaps in the historical record. As a novelist, I can enjoy the adventure of filling in those gaps.

    Cheers!

  7. Tony says:

    Thanks for share,historians ignore the ordinary persons,just record for heros and senior figures,however the historical fictions that creat by authors like u,make it completely,without tiny people,without lively ordinary,there is no real history.

  8. Alexis Langsner says:

    I so get this. I write about the early medieval period around 450 to 550 AD. Safer because there is not much history written at that time, leaving a nice open window for those of us who would have loved to have been there. Off to Yorkshire England in the spring to soak up more of British history. It will be my fifth time to the UK. Will read your books. Thanks for sharing

  9. Vickey says:

    Fantastic post!
    You completely nailed the appeal of historical fiction to history buffs.
    I did go to college and got a masters in history & will state that most academic history books are duller than dirt. Fiction celebrates the story inherent in the scattered facts, something that professors often forget.
    Thank you so much for this post–I will be quoting it and sharing it.

  10. Jess Steven Hughes says:

    Excellent article. This why I too write historical fiction. I find the research even more challenging because my stories take place in the First Century A.D. and there are many gaps. So I try write to my stories based on the evidence available whether from literary or archaelogical sources.

  11. Matthew T Keough says:

    “the historical novelist might illuminate a broader truth, a universal truth, as it was lived at a certain time in the past. The novelist writes the bigger scene, the scene of ordinary people, how they survived with everything stacked against them, and in that way the novelist takes the reader to the doorstep of history.”

    This is a great point. I never thought of historical fiction in this way. However, couldn’t this apply to all fiction? Couldn’t any story reveal a deeper human truth no matter whether it is historically accurate or not? This is why I think straight history is important, because fiction writer can come up with stories that may have a very deep meaning but are based, at least in part, on somebody’s imagination. However, although there can never be a truly 100% objective history, the critical job of historians are to use the available evidence to tell make a claim of what actually happened. This is important even if it does not have the deeper meaning of historical fiction.

    I would also assert that there are some history of the common people like Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” or EP Thompson’s “The Making of the English Working Class”

    • SheilaBali says:

      I suppose you are correct, Mathew, and you have a great point here. All writing involves interpretation and, to one degree or another, imagination.

  12. Vickey Kall says:

    I agree with so much that’s been written here.
    I’d like to add that in the last 20 years, historians have been paying a lot more attention to ordinary everyday people. Soldiers in the trenches, midwives, sex workers, slave narratives–all are getting much more attention now.
    I think a problem is finding these stories. It’s easy to locate the facts out about a noted leader who had lots of correspondence. Not so easy to dig up a diary from a poor woman who lived 200 years ago.
    So we come back to historical fiction as an avenue to bring us these tales.

    • SheilaBali says:

      You’re correct Vickey. Wars are personlized when told through the voice of the common people. It’s unfortunate that both WW1 and WW2 have destroyed such staggering amounts of documents and letters. Many places of worship, public buildings and private homes were burnt or flattened. The question is how do we rekindle these stories now?

  13. Marcia says:

    I enjoy reading historical fiction, and would love to tell my grandparents’ story of homesteading in Upper Alberta, Canada in 1915. I was fortunate to have been raised by my grandparents and hear their stories of life in Canada (my grandmother was Canadian) and life in East Tennessee (my grandfather). You give me much food for thought.

    • SheilaBali says:

      I’m uncertain if your grandparents are still alive. Whether they are or not, it would be wise to document their stories on paper. Maybe one day, you’ll decide to write about the homestead in Alberta, in 1915. Marcia, there is nothing more tangible and meaningful than giving life to their voices.

  14. Nathan Sherratt says:

    Hi Sheila,

    What a fantastic article! I really like your point about history – it’s one that my history teacher used to make. The fact that the victors always write the history, which leads to much bias and distortion.

    I love how your job is then to explore both sides of the story, in order to create a fair and accurate history. You’re right that many historians may not like it, however, as you said, so many historians disagree amongst themselves anyway, and they are usually bias in one way or another (nationality; political leaning etc.)

    It sounds like a very difficult task you have, but a rewarding one too. I wish you the very best with ‘Shattered Tears From My Homeland’.

    I have reviewed a few historical novels: City of Shadows; The Book Thief; Interpretation of Dreams and The House By The Thames (set during WWI, WWII, early 20th century USA and over 5 centuries of history in London respectively).

    Thanks for this great post – I look forward to reading more. I hope you like my other reviews.

    Regards,

    Nathan

  15. Narciso Urquiola says:

    After reading first 3 sentences of the article I was totally hooked into reading more! It appeared to be describing me to a tee. Not a historian, but loves to write historical fiction. Awesome! Thanks for posting this.

  16. Joy Smith says:

    I enjoyed your article. Wow!! Your story took a lot of research. I love historical fiction–interesting stories and background. I write mostly science fiction, but I read Zane Grey’s stories about the frontier growing up, and recently I wrote my first western, Detour Trail, so I could write about our frontier (the time of the Oregon Trail). I usually stick to the frontiers on planets. My research for Detour Trail involved maps and history.

    • SheilaBali says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Joy, and good luck with your book. The Oregon trail must have unusual maps in American history. Can you tell me how and where you found the maps?

      • Joy V. Smith says:

        I started out the easy way. I looked it up in my old encylopedia. (Some things don’t change.) And I used my atlas for the fine details. And I sent away for tourist info and books from the states I wanted. More details and pictures. And I used Google too.

        • SheilaBali says:

          Joy you are, no doubt, resourceful. I have found that larger libraries can contain some very old archives. Those are priceless and are truly helpful. I’ve also used Proquest on numerous occassions. You have to sign up for this through your local library as I did with mine. Thanks for letting me know, Joy. Keep the ink juices flowing as you write.

  17. Joy V. Smith says:

    Thanks, Sheila. And thanks for mentioning the library. I have used the reference library in the past, but it’s so easy to use Google and what I’ve got on hand (after sending for some info), that I rarely don’t think of it–or need to. I don’t think my library’s archives have much–so far away from the Oregon Tail, and I’m not aware of Proquest… Can you access it online?

  18. Julaina Kleist-Corwin says:

    I’m happy that you gave me permission to use this post for my anthology, Written Across the Genres. All your research and passion for history is worth the time it takes to write historical fiction.

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