By William G. Collins
I see them everywhere. Long dead Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians—you name the civilization and I’ve seen them. All right, I admit it—I’m a writer of historical fiction. Although, I wish there was another name for the genre because how can a book be both historical and fictional?
I’ve just finished―with the help of the Daytona Writers Group―a novel about King Tut and his family. It has been the most thrilling and challenging writing experience I’ve ever had. There are others in our group who are also historical fiction writers—so I’m in good company. I thought I would share a few thoughts about the genre, which may help clear up some confusion as to what it really is.
Most agree that historical fiction began with the beginning of civilization. Writers throughout history have put their own spin on events. But for English writers, it began when Shakespeare and his contemporaries shoplifted from sources such as Holinshed, to give their plays backdrop, names, and plots, and presented these stage-worlds as the real thing. They boasted characters purporting to be historically accurate, interacting with other characters that were definitely fictional.
I remember as a teen-ager, lying on the floor of our front room, listening to the new miracle of stereophonic sound—with one speaker next to my left ear, the other to the right. There were separate sounds impinging on each ear. On the demonstration record, I could hear a ping-pong ball bounce into one ear and out the other. This only confirmed for my parents that there really was nothing between my ears to stop the sound.
I believe historical fiction delivers a stereo version of the story: From the left speaker come, the historical facts as we have learned them, while the right speaker plays what the writer’s imagination perceives as what might have been said or done based on events in history.
It is the job of both the historian and the fiction writer to cut through the fog of perception and come as close to the truth as possible. The historian focuses on the events; the fiction writer focuses on the persons involved in them.
The historian, at the most basic level, seeks to answer the question “What happened?” By contrast, the writer of historical fiction seeks to explain, “What was it like?”
The historian tells us about a battle. The fiction writer lets the reader see the soldier slog his way up the hill, know the feeling of the heavy pack digging into his shoulders, and hear the curses as his feet slip in the sand and mud. We sense his fear as we hit the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find.
I have learned so much about ancient Egyptian history by doing research on what Egyptian life was like. In historical fiction, setting is the most important literary statement. We must know how people lived, what they ate, what kinds of homes they lived in, and what articles (now artifacts) were a part of their lives. I also think when I write a story that takes place in times long past, I am freer. My readers lose their prejudice and accept my story with open minds. The reader and I have less at stake, and thus I might get nearer to the truth, possibly even to reality.
Dialogue and description are the two key elements in bringing any fiction alive. In addition to accurate language is the problem of narrative voice. Word choice shapes it, as do the narrator’s opinions and attitudes. Some critics have insisted that historical fiction reveals more about its author than its historical subject does. Ouch!
It is no easy task to write historical fiction―stories based fifty or more years in the past―a peculiarly demanding and problematic genre. Any writer who tells a story set in the past must negotiate the fine line between history and fiction, between readers’ contemporary sensibilities and historical accuracy. That writers continue to work in this genre, successfully engaging with the issues that define it, testifies to its value and viability. Reading these novels, reminds us repeatedly that the issues of the past continues to impinge upon today.
Author Hilary Mantel said it best. “Immersion in history doesn’t make you backward-looking—it makes you want to run like the devil towards the future.”