How much of historical fiction is history?
The 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 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.
In 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.