How much of historical fiction is history?

Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard FlanaganThe 2014 Man Booker Prize winner was announced this past week. The accolades judging panel chair A.C. Grayling heaped on Richard Flanagan‘s WWII-era novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North, included this seemingly odd comment:

Historical fiction is not history.

The comment seems odd because by definition, historical fiction is about history. Or is it? Grayling’s comments raised intriguing questions: Is the story more important in historical fiction? Or the history?

Every writer of historical fiction makes choices about what and how much historical detail to include. I know I wrestled with this question as I wrote Go Away Home. Two historical novels I read this month demonstrated the broad history-to-story spectrum authors can explore.

a-time-of-traitors, David LawlorA Time of Traitors is David Lawlor‘s third novel featuring Liam Mannion, a young Irishman who fought in the Great War and then returned to Ireland and became active in the Irish war for independence in the 1920s. Lawlor’s books are fast-paced action stories featuring vivid characters and strong plot lines. Twists and turns kept me on the edge of my seat, totally engaged because I cared about the characters and what happened to them. Oh yes, I also learned a lot about the IRA and the fight for independence.

A Time of Traitors will appeal to readers who enjoy action adventure. They’ll learn about Irish history without realizing it’s happening.

Ambitious Madam Bonapart, Ruth Hull ChatlienIn The Ambitious Madam Bonaparte, author Ruth Hull Chatlain goes to the other end of the spectrum. Historical details abound – clothing, furniture, modes of travel, historical figures in government, design of cities, architecture. Chatlain’s research is meticulous. Characters and story line take a back seat to descriptions laden with historical details.

The Ambitious Madam Bonaparte may appeal to readers more interested in 18th – 19th Century history than the characters around which the story is built.

Fortunately for us authors, there are readers for all types of novels.

How do you react to the comment: “Historical fiction is not history?” If you write historical fiction, how do you balance telling the story with telling the history? As a reader what do you expect?

NOTE: A.C. Grayling’s comments were included in an article in the Daily Mail. His comments add nuance to the quote I pulled out for this post.

The big questions: Memoir or fiction? Is the Past ever Past?

Life is full of so many questions. What’s for dinner? White wine or red? Is it time to turn on the furnace?

The writing life is no different. Three events coming up in the next several days let me join other authors in discussing some of the big questions writers face. I expect those discussions to both fun and challenging. Equally fun is that you can join in on some of those discussions even if you’re not in Iowa.

The Big Decision – Memoir or Fiction? - On Thursday, October 15, at 6:00 p.m. CDT, my long-time writing buddy author Mary Gottschalk and I are the featured guests in a free teleseminar hosted by the National Association of Memoir Writers. If you’re interested in exploring The Big Decision with us, there’s still time to sign up. Click here.

Celebrate Writing PosterCelebrate Writing at MPL - On Saturday, October 18, at the Marion Public Library in Marion, Iowa, I’ll join other fiction writers in a panel discussion on “The Art of Fiction.” Other panels will explore the Perks & Perils of Self-Publishing, Writing Memoirs, and Selling Your Book: Marketing. After lunch, Mary and I will reprise the Fiction or Memoir discussion in a small group workshop. If you’re in the area, seats are still available for the morning panels and a noontime Lunch with the Authors. The afternoon workshop is already wait-listed. For event details, click here.

Live from Prairie LightsIs the Past Ever Past? – On Sunday, October 19, from 2-3 p.m., I’ll be in Iowa City for a book talk and reading at Iowa’s iconic indie bookstore – Prairie Lights. Reading at Prairie Lights is an honor in itself, but this event is even more special because I’ll be joined by author Shirley Showalter, author of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets A Glittering World. Shirley and I have more than a little in common even though we grew up 1,000 miles apart. Just one tidbit: we’re both dairy farmers’ daughters who grew up to be authors. We’ve only met online, so it will be great fun to meet in person and share the podium.

Since our three books are all set in the past, Shirley recalled William Faulkner’s quote “The Past Isn’t Dead. It isn’t Even Past,” which we adapted for our talk title. If you’re in the area, join us. If you can’t be there in person but you’d still like to hear what we talk about, you can tune in as Prairie Lights streams readings live.

These events offer a unique ability for in person or live interaction over the airwaves. I hope you’ll join in for one or more.

Since I’m still preparing for these presentations, I’d appreciate your thoughts. What do you consider the major factors in whether to to write about a topic as memoir or fiction? What comes into play for you in considering fiction “art”? How do you react to Faulkner’s quote? Is the past dead? If not, why not? How can it be that the past isn’t even past?

A few of my favorite blogs – One Lovely Blog Award

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The Invention of Wings – Review – Historical Fiction

The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd

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Subtle color in a mature prairie.

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How do you hold on to first-time awe?

She lost her first tooth!

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Peppers – vegetable or fruit?

Vegetables of fruits?

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A prairie reminder: Patience

Six years ago, I prepared the soil and sowed the seeds for a native Iowa prairie. The seed mix I chose from Ion Exchange contained 37 different varieties of prairie wildflowers and grasses. I was so eager for my new prairie to take root and grow, I … [Continue reading]