Monday, July 11, 2016

Some recent essays about historical fiction

I've recently come across three thought-provoking essays on the historical fiction genre and thought I'd share the links.

First is Francis Spufford's "It Feels More Honest to Write Fiction."  This article for the Guardian, by the British author of the debut novel Golden Hill, explores his transition from nonfiction history to historical fiction and the shift in thought processes that this involved.  As he discovered, it's a daring, unsettling task to move from using facts as a constant reference point to relying on one's own imagination and assumptions in order to tell stories.

Here's just a snippet:  "What I notice now, is that I hardly seem to be writing in words, the way I used to. I mean, of course I am. A novel is a long, long string of words; is made of no other material at all. But that’s what it ends by being. It begins as a set of decisions about character, and time, and angle of vision, all taken before the final embodiment of those things in words... Good writing in fiction is always doing an impossibly large number of things at the same time, and most of that happens beneath the surface, where the reader never sees it directly."

For the popular History Girls blog (which is celebrating its 5th anniversary), Australian historian and writer Gillian Polack surveys the changes we've been seeing in history and fiction in an essay entitled Treasuring History Through Fiction.  "Two decades ago," she writes, "there was a vast gulf between historians and fiction writers. This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t so much the case in the time of Walter Scott. And it’s not the case right now. It’s now socially far more acceptable to read certain types of fiction as part of enjoying history. The way history is written into many novels has changed: it’s more sophisticated, more aware and far more researched."

For those who pay attention to the genre, this is an important read that focuses on the state of historical fiction today, and how people think about history -- and what this means for both readers and writers. She bases her conclusions on research she's conducted, including interviews with historical novelists.  I'm in the process of reading her new academic book on the subject (mentioned in the article).

And for Fiction Writers Review, Mary Volmer (whose new novel Reliance, Illinois I'll be reviewing shortly) has a piece called "The Tourist, the Expat, and the Native: A Traveler's Approach to Crafting Historical Fiction."  

She writes: "Although historical novelists write from research, rather than personal experience, about places in time that we cannot physically explore, we employ a traveler’s hunger for discovery, her sense of wonder and displacement; we apply her reflective instinct. The work of the historical novelist is an ever-deepening process of immersion, from tourist to expat to native."  And she details the changes that writers undergo as they become more fluent in the world their characters inhabit.

Don't just go by my summaries, though; it's best to read the pieces linked above in full.  You may find yourself mentally underlining apt phrasings while taking in their insights.  Or you may disagree, of course, but the issues raised are worth pondering.

7 comments:

  1. Wow, these all seem like extremely thoughtful essays and topics! I read through Treasuring History Through Fiction, which was extremely well written and a fascinating analysis, and have a made a note to read the others later. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. It's interesting to see how historical fiction and readers' perceptions of it have changed over time - that article gave a good overview. Glad you liked the post!

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  2. Excellent overview of valuable essays for readers and writers of historical fiction. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks very much for your comments!

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  3. [ " . . . the British author of the debut novel Golden Hill, explores his transition from nonfiction history to historical fiction and the shift in thought processes that this involved. As he discovered, it's a daring, unsettling task to move from using facts as a constant reference point to relying on one's own imagination and assumptions in order to tell stories. " ]

    Which is exactly the opposite of my own experience!

    I just read a "What Is Historical Fiction" definition essay as preface to Jack Whyte's 2014 novel of the Bruce and Wallace, The Guardian. I liked what he pointed out about language being different in the 14th century within even such relatively small regions as England and Scotland.

    My favorite essay on writing historical fiction and how it should be approached remains Alexander Dumas's.

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    1. I heard Jack Whyte speak once (as the guest of honor for the first Historical Novel Society conference in 2005) - he talked about the importance of storytelling in historical fiction. I'll have to check out his definition essay, too.

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  4. Thank you

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