What Is Historical
By H. Scott Dalton
H. Scott Dalton
Historical fiction is far from the most
popular of fiction genres. Look on the shelves of your favorite bookstore:
the overwhelming numbers of fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller,
contemporary, and literary works tend to drown the historical titles on the
shelves. In fact, the number of works of history in the average Barnes &
Noble is probably greater than the number of works of historical fiction.
The genre is often the domain of historians turned novelists, or of military
men and women who have decided to write a novel (in which case they are
often shelved as "War" novels rather than "Historical Fiction," further
testament to the form's poor reputation).
Why? It may have something to do with the
public's on-again, off-again appreciation of history in general, or a
general perception that historical fiction is simply another flavor of
history, a subject many learned to dread in school.
But what is historical fiction, really? Is
it history by a different name? Or is it something else, related to history
but separate? And if it is separate, what are the differences?
The American Heritage Dictionary,
Second College Edition, defines "Historical" and "Fiction" in part as
adj. 1. Of, relating to, or of the character of history. 2.
Based on or concerned with events in history.
n. 4.a. A literary work whose content is produced by the imagination
and is not necessarily based on fact. b. The category of literature
comprising works of this kind, including novels, short stories, and plays.
Most of us would comfortably accept a
definition that combines elements of these definitions, like this: a
literary work or category whose content is produced by the imagination and
based on or concerned with events in history.
This is a very broad definition. In
practice, historical fiction can take a number of forms, including but not
Depictions of real historical
figures in the context of the challenges they faced.
Depictions of real historical
figures in imagined situations.
Depictions of fictional
characters in documented historical situations.
Depictions of fictional
characters in fictional situations, but in the context of a real historical
In addition to these "standard" varieties,
the market recognizes a few other permutations:
Timeshift stories, in which a
modern character is transported back in time, or more rarely, a historical
character is transported to the present, or to a time period not his own.
Alternate history or "What
if?" stories, usually set in a world in which an historic event did not
occur, or occurred much differently, such as a Nazi victory in World War II,
a Texan victory at the Alamo, or the death of William, Duke of Normandy, in
Historical fantasy, in which
characters, even historic figures, are depicted in historical periods or
situations, but along with magic or dragons or some other element of
Given these many permutations, let us
simplify our broad definition somewhat: historical fiction is a fictional
story in which elements of history, be they persons, events, or settings,
play a central role.
Elements of history. Clear enough. But what
differentiates historical fiction from history? After all, does not all
history contain an element of fiction, or at least speculation? Ask four
soldiers about the same battle an hour afterward, and you're likely to get
four different recounts of the fight.
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 difference lies in the level at which they
seek the truth, the focus of their seeking. The historian focuses on
the events. The fiction writer focuses on the persons -- the characters, if
you will -- involved in those events.
Let's consider the questions the two
writers seek to answer. 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?"
A historian tells us, sometimes in vivid
detail, about U.S. Marines fighting their way across Iwo Jima, what they
did, what their living conditions were like, perhaps even something about
their backgrounds. He or she analyzes why they were there, using words like
"unprovoked aggression" or "expansionism" or "imperialism" or "oil embargo"
to explain why so many young men had to die for a small island in the
Pacific Ocean. He or she may even give us vignettes, descriptions of heroic
acts on both sides. A good historian helps us imagine the roar of battle,
the spectacle of ruined earth littered with dead, giving us a safe vantage
point between and above the lines of battle.
The historical fiction writer puts us in
the battle. We do not watch the young Marine slog his way up Mount Suribachi;
we feel his heavy pack digging into our shoulders, curse as our feet slip in
sand and mud, hear the snap of passing rounds and feel his fear as we hit
the dirt with him and scramble for whatever cover we can find. We pray with
him in the moments before he raises his head from the sand and looks around.
We care about the things he cares about: not expansionism or oil embargoes
or national strategy, but his brother who lost a leg at Pearl Harbor, his
girl back home, the buddy who was right next to him, but now lies in the
dirt not moving. We're not just watching the fight; that's our buddy, our
girl back home, our brother. The writer of historical fiction is first a
writer not of history, but of fiction, and fiction is about characters, not
So historical fiction is a close relative
of history, but not simply a retelling of the lectures we learned to dread
in high school. We write historical fiction, and read it, not to learn about
history so much as to live it. It is the closest we can get to experiencing
the past without having been there. We finish a history and think "So that's
what happened!" We finish a work of historical fiction, catch our breath,
and think "So that's what it was like!"