Monday, July 15, 2013

Historical novel or novel set in history? A guest post by Gary Schanbacher, author of Crossing Purgatory

Gary Schanbacher is stopping by the blog today with a thought-provoking essay that touches on the nature and definition of historical fiction.  His novel Crossing Purgatory, literary fiction set on the Great Plains in the pre-Civil War era, was published in June by Pegasus Books (hb, $25.95). There's a giveaway opportunity at the end, too, for American readers.  Welcome, Gary!


 Historical Novel, or Novel Set in History?
Gary Schanbacher

When I first began making reading appearances for my novel, Crossing Purgatory, I was initially surprised by questions about the process and challenge of writing historical fiction. In retrospect, the questions were perfectly reasonable since my novel chronicles the journey of a young man who takes to the Santa Fe Trail in the spring of 1858. But, until actually asked the questions, I’d thought of the book as a novel that “happened” to be set in history rather than a historical novel.

Some of you must be thinking: Huh? I’m sure in part the distinction I made was self-deception, pure and simple. I don’t think I’d ever intentionally set out to write historical fiction. I am not a historian by training, and the prospect of researching seemed daunting to the point of writer paralysis. Somewhere in my subconscious I must have found it less intimidating to think in terms of writing about characters in conflict during a particular point in time rather than a “period piece.” My novel had only to be historically “plausible,” rather than factual. Of course, once I became immersed in story, setting, and era, by necessity the research followed. Would my protagonist carry a musket or a rifle? Flintlock or percussion cap? What kind of hat would he wear? How many miles would he travel in a day? And on, and on. But the initial self-deception allowed me to begin writing my novel, and it got me past the point of no return.

On some level, however, the distinction between a historical novel and a novel set in history may be real, and I think it has to do with narrative emphasis. When I finish a book I usually ask myself a few questions. Was I entertained, educated, or both? What about the book might remain with me over time? Do the characters or the events create the lasting impact? Are the characters and events historically factual or fictional, or a mix of both?

For me, the more linked a book is to historically factual characters and events, the more firmly I categorize it as historical fiction. A book dealing with purely fictional characters and imaginary events set during a particular era, I tend to classify as a novel set in history. The difference? Although Crossing Purgatory is intended to evoke a specific time and place, the plot and all major characters are products of my imagination. It would be a very different book if set in 1958 rather than 1858, but probably not different at all if set in 1859 or 1860. Likewise, would it really matter if Lonesome Dove were set in 1877 or 1875 rather than 1876? What matters is that it does a wonderful job of evoking an era and of developing the relationship between two unforgettable men of the old West. In contrast, it would have mattered, very much so, if Stephen Harrigan decided to set the central event of The Gates of the Alamo in 1846 rather than 1836.

All fiction reading is on some level entertainment. Sometimes I feel like a roller coaster ride (think spy thriller), and sometimes I feel like sinking into the Sunday Times crossword puzzle (think Moby Dick). Similarly, at times I enjoy reading fictional recreation of actual events lived by actual characters (what I call historical fiction), and at other times I enjoy letting fictional characters roam freely, endure imaginary challenges and interactions that evoke a sense of time and place unconstrained by historical event (novel set in history).


Gary Schanbacher’s short story collection, Migration Patterns, received a PEN/Hemingway Honorable Mention for distinguished first works of fiction and won the Colorado Book Award, The High Plains First Book Award, and the Eric Hoffer General Fiction Award. Publishers Weekly calls his new novel, Crossing Purgatory, “a visceral and triumphant saga of the Old West,” and in a starred review Booklist refers to Schanbacher as “a gifted writer whose prose is always elegant, whether describing the land, a winter storm, or the inner life of his characters.” Visit his website at

For your chance to win a signed copy of Crossing Purgatory, thanks to the generosity of the author, please fill out the form below.  US readers only; deadline Monday, July 22nd. 

This giveaway has expired; thanks to all who entered.


  1. t would be a very different book if set in 1958 rather than 1858, but probably not different at all if set in 1859 or 1860.

    One might suspect that 1860 would make it a different kind of book, as the first order of businesss for Texas after secession was to attempt annexation of New Mexico (which still included the territory we know as the state of Arizona. New Mexicans had very strong opinions about that. They still do, for that matter. :)

  2. What a great coincidence this morning!

    I noticed that the Langum Charitable Trust has named Crossing Purgatory as one of their contenders for their 2013 historical novel award.

    Then here on Reading the Past is Gary Shanbacher's column about historical novels, plus a chance to win a copy of his Crossing Purgatory.

    I think the stars are pointing me to read his book soon.