Monday, January 12, 2015

Doctor Who and Historical Fiction
As Mary Ann Rodman suggests, there is plotting and there is planning. But sometimes, especially when one reads and writes historical fiction, there’s the wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

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
researcher and author.
 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.

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. As the Doctor tells his companion, 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


  1. Thanks for this most insightful and thoughtful post, Bobbi!

  2. Great post, Bobbi. You may be interested in knowing how the Historical Novel Society defines historical:
    >>To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).<<
    (see )
    But that definition really doesn't fit when we're writing for young readers. I think they consider something "historical" if it occurred before they were born. :-)

  3. Thank you, Marti! I LOVE the Historical Novel Society. They gave nice recommendations to both of my books. In fact, they wrote of Girls of Gettysburg, "... a wonderful junior companion to the likes of Shaara’s or Peters’ books about the same battle." Can you imagine!!?

  4. Thank you for your kind words, Esther. Always!!

  5. It's always a shock to read something written as historical fiction when it's set within your own time period - and you catch errors. As you said "But I SAW this (or that) happen." You can't write about the shooting of John Kennedy and change the facts, because too many people are still living who saw it unfold.
    Secondly, if they get a fact wrong. One award-winning book had the child TURN ON the oil lamp. Sorry, you don't turn it on. You LIGHT it with a match or a flaming splinter lit from the fireplace.

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  7. I love how you wove the three story lines together in The Girls of Gettysburg.

  8. I've learned a lot from this very interesting post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  9. I am a Doctor Who fanatic and I love historical fiction, Bobbi. Your "wibbly wobbly, timey wimey" connection was spot on. A great post.

  10. Wendie: I so agree! As I was researching Girls of Gettysburg, I read many children's books on the subject just to get my feel of what was already done. I found one book, Who Shall Not Be Named, that was held in high regard, taught in classes, but it had some glaring mistakes, including the dates of the battle itself! I was astounded that no one during the process of editing or proofing caught those dates, at the very least.

  11. Yvonne and Marcia: Thank you, thank you for your kind words!

  12. Leanne, a fellow Whovian!! Yea!! Thank you for stopping by, and for your kind words!


  13. Congrats on Girls of Gettysburg which is on my To Read list & accumulates the best recommendations, Bobbi.
    This post is timely for me.
    Part of my nights & days this week (in addition to revision of picture books in the Meg Miller - relation? -& ReviMo challenge) include reading the historical fiction novel The Good Lord Bird about John Brown & also writing my MG novel set in coastal FL in the 1970s.
    So all of this is spot-on for this researcher/writer.
    Great, great post. Appreciations!

  14. Jan: Thank you so much for checking in, and for reading GIRLS. I hope you like it. Let us know what you think of it! Meanwhile, wishing you all good success on writing your MG novel. I tend to think that writing historical fiction, and its sister genre American fantasy, is an artform at its best. It weaves together so many components -- all the wibbly wobbly wimey threads of time and space as well as fiction -- that tends to go unnoticed. It's a challenge!

  15. Bobbie,
    you have given such a thorough consideration of the 'wibbly-wobbly' discussion on historical fiction, and I think an accurate one.
    I will forget my name in my old age before I forget how distraught my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Dolan, was when she entered our classroom crying, and explaining that our president, John F. Kennedy, had been shot. We absorbed her grief as a first taste, as fourth graders, of the nation's tears we would see unfold on our black and white televisions at home over the next month. This was the man we had been reading about in our Weekly it was so very real even to children.
    For an 'historical fiction' writer to catch that emotion might be rare--unless, they had, in fact experienced it. Yes, just over 50 years ago, qualified as history in my personal experience, as I am now 61. You've prompted me to think I should write about it somehow, for children, from a first-hand fourth grade view.

  16. Damon, thank you so much for your thoughtful discussion. That is a powerful memory. And I agree, it would make a powerful story. I think you should absolutely write that story!


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