Monday, October 15, 2018

Historical Fiction and All That Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey Stuff


Especially during these times when facts can be alternative and history can be revised, the ongoing argument on what is historical fiction, how and why it is relevant, and by extension why history is important, seems perplexing. As a writer, one of the most stinging rejections that I get too many times is that, despite an interesting plot and engaging characters, “historical fiction is a hard sell.”

History often carries the stigma of being dry and irrelevant, says Y.S. Lee (The Agency 1: Spy in the House, 2010), but “the freedom of fiction is one way of exploring a subject that may seem intimating or remote. After all, it’s a kind of fantasy, a parallel world in which people act with recognizable human impulses and ideals but abide by very different rules.”

The genre of historical fiction is very broad, one that Mary Burns (1995) labels a “hybrid and a shape-shifter,” combining history with fiction. Or, as Trevor Cairney (2009) suggests, historical fiction is where “literature meets history.” Avi, an award-winning master of the genre, offers that some historical fiction stays close to the known facts, while others are little more than costume drama. “Ultimately, what is most important is the story, and the characters.” Facts, according to Avi, do not make a story. “Believable people do…Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction makes truth less a stranger.”

Historical fiction defies easy explanation. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

Many condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the historical fiction genre a betrayal. Perhaps a better way to understand historical fiction is to take a lesson from The Doctor. Yes, that Doctor: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

It seems to me the same thing can be said of historical fiction.

In historical fiction, setting is usually considered ‘historical’ if it is at fifty or more years in the past. As such, the author writes from research rather than personal experience. But as an old turnip, my personal history dates back to the years prior to Korean War. The Civil Rights Movement, the Freedom Riders, the Bay of Pigs, the JFK Assassination, the Landing on the Moon, and the first Dr. Who episode are not some fixed points in history but a function of my experience. Yet, for these last generations, these are often just dates in a textbook. And the plot is a linear expression that begins on a certain date. The award-winning book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis (1995), depicting the Birmingham, Alabama church bombing of 1963, is often listed as historical fiction. Yet I remember vividly watching the events unfold on my parents’ black and white television.

Still, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers, and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias.

The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

Some facts, such as dates of specific events, are fixed points in time. We know, for example, that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred July 1 to July 3, in 1863. The interpretations of what happened over those three days remains a favorite in historical fiction. My interpretation of the battle, in Girls of Gettysburg (Holiday House, August 2014), featured three perspectives that are rare in these historical fiction depictions: the daughter of a free black living seven miles north from the Mason-Dixon line, the daughter of the well-to-do local merchant, and a girl disguised as a Confederate soldier. The plot weaves together the fates of these girls, a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a battle that ultimately defined a nation.

In other words, history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate.

Historical fiction introduces readers to different points of view. Writer Kathi Appelt offers that one of the most provocative books to achieve this goal is M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (2006). “It broke my stereotypical assumptions about the period and events of the time,” says Kathi. And in so doing, “it broke my heart.” Reading different perspectives can build a reader’s “emotional sensitivity.” As Amy von Heyking (Scholastic Canada) says, “their moral and social awareness grows as they consider reasons for people’s behavior in other times, other places or specific situations.” Such stories provide the “insider’s perspective,” allowing readers to reach a new, deeper understanding of the other’s experience.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

Defining the ‘historical’ in 'historical fiction' is a bit wobbly, depending upon the age of the critics and researchers can be unrelenting in their quest for accuracy. The process of writing historical fiction, like researching history itself, is neither straightforward nor a risk-free process. But I am reminded what Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough once said, “We are raising a generation of young Americans who are by-and-large historically illiterate…The textbooks are dreary, they’re done by committee, they’re often hilariously politically correct and they’re not doing any good. [But] there are wonderful books, past and present. There is literature in history.”

As the Doctor tells her companions, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those doors...

“… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!” 

--Bobbi Miller

5 comments:

  1. Great post! I love all the quotes you wove throughout.

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  2. This is wonderful and near and dear to my historical fiction writing heart. Well done, Bobbi!

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  3. I love this--I've got a piece of historical fiction I'm itching to get back to--now even more so!

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