The “fiction” in historical fiction; and the why

Those of you who have followed me for a time know that some of my favorite editorial projects are works of historical fiction; the truth is, historical fiction has been one of my favorite genres since I was in grade school.  (Anyone remember the We Were There series?)  Perhaps that’s why, during those projects, I’ve noted one challenge that continually plagues many of their writers—especially newer ones:  “Exactly how much fiction is acceptable in historical fiction?”  Even more seasoned writers have issues, but their challenges are more generally along the lines of,  “When is fiction acceptable in historical fiction?”  Either is a common problem.

Part of a recent  interview with best-selling, award-winning author Hilary Mantel  on NPR’s  Fresh Air  briefly addresses these two questions.  (If you listen to the interview, which focuses on the two finished books in Mantel’s trilogy about Tudor England,  Wolf Hall  and  Bring Up the Bodies,  her comments on writing historical fiction run from about 16:18 to roughly 19:38.)  Her answer is simple, yet complex.

I make up as little as possible.  I spend a great deal of time on research, on finding all the available accounts of a scene or incident, finding out all the background details and the biographies of the people involved . . .  it’s really in the gaps, the erasures, that I think the novelist can best go to work . . .

She then steps into the topic that, in my mind, states the very purpose for writing historical fiction in the first place: to tell “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey used to say—the part of the story that history books cannot easily convey; the part that relates  why  what happened, happened:

. . . inevitably in history, in any period, we know a lot about what happened, but we may be far hazier on why it happened. And there’s always the question: Why did it happen the way it did? Where was the turning point?

In other words, facts are facts, whether they involve a person or group of people, an act or event, or a time or place; but, the why and the how . . . now, that’s where the “story” in history comes in!  At least, that’s my opinion.

So, now that you know the challenge of historical fiction (and how to meet it), get back to that draft!

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Your memories to memoirs, or a personal history

Of all the projects I work on, I have to say that some of the most rewarding ones are those during which I have the chance to help clients start, develop, and complete the stories of their lives. Working with “average Joes” and “everyday Josephines” is an interest that developed early in my career—when I helped out in the local history room of the Dayton and Montgomery County (Ohio) Public Library back in the 1970s and early ’80s.

I didn’t do much in the beginning except help the reference librarians to research questions by digging up information from “the cage” (where the older and historical properties of the library were stored behind chain-link fencing) and then verify their responses by photocopying documents, pages from history books, and newspaper clippings. The work was extremely interesting, rather like detective work, and certainly deepened my interest in local history. But it was just a stepping stone in a journey I didn’t even know I’d begun.

Eventually, I jumped from that local history room to the county historical society a few blocks away. There, I not only started performing my own research but I also got to transform my discoveries into stories for the society’s newsletter. Still, like the questions I worked with in the library, those adventures into local history primarily involved companies, buildings, street names, and communities; only occasionally did a good question about a local family come in. And, then, the questions were nearly always about prominent families. Finally, when I later moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, and took a position as historical publications editor—well, that was when I finally got to work primarily with people, and primarily with “rag’lar” people.

You see, the North Carolina Museum of History had just started an initiative to gather “his stories” and “her stories” (get it? his stories, as in histories . . .) from the working classes of the state’s residents. The wealthier and ruling classes were, of course, well documented; but in the 1990s, the stories of older residents and their everyday lives were rapidly vanishing, along with the ways of life they reflected, and the museum had wisely taken note. My role was to edit transcribed oral histories and videos and to proofread transcriptions from written letters, notes, and diary entries. Once in a while, I did get to meet the “dignitaries” but generally, that honor was reserved for the staff members and volunteers who did the interviews.

The act of gathering histories from the state’s working classes was somewhat novel in the early 1990s. In fact, many people refused the museum’s advances at first because they believed “no one will care about my life” or “I’m not important; why do you want to know about me?” A few years passed, but eventually, we overcame those beliefs. And, what helped change minds were interviews like this one (a low-resolution pdf), which was used in the museum’s Tar Heel Junior Historian magazine.

Ms Boyette’s story exemplifies a regular, old, everyday existence. But, in reading it, no one can argue with the significance of her memories or the importance of her story. With luck, it’s even helped convince you to consider telling yours and leaving it as a legacy for your family, friends, and community.

Something to think about, anyways . . .

Stephen Evans,