Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. 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.
But, historical fiction defies easy explanation. For some, historical fiction is first and foremost fiction, and therefore anything goes. Others condemn the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, and consider the genre a betrayal.
Perhaps a better way to understand the genre 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.” Perhaps the same thing can be said of plot and the 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 the 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.
Defining the ‘historical’ in 'historical fiction' is a bit wobbly, depending upon the age of the
Historians work within a broad spectrum of data-gathering, gathering volumes of primary sources coupled with previous research. They use footnotes, endnotes, separate chapters, appendixes and other textual formatting to clarify their observations. Plotting and planning resemble Venn diagrams and flowcharts, looking similar to the opening credits of Doctor Who as the Tardis moves forward and backward in time. But the artistic nature of historical fiction presents several challenges in books for children. Events must be “winnowed and sifted”, as Sheila Egoff explains, in order to create forward movement that leads to a resolution. Authors choose between which details to include, and exclude, and this choice is wholly dependent upon the character’s goal. More important, resolution rarely happens in history. The same with happy endings. Because of the culling process, critics often claim that historical fiction is inherently biased.
Yet, nothing about history is obvious, and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered factual that the world was flat, that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease, that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. 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. 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.
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