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.