Recently, I was on a panel discussing ‘Writing From History’ when someone in the audience claimed that historical fiction dilutes facts in order to tell a story. I think it’s just the opposite. To be effective, historical fiction must personalize history by painting a picture so clear that the reader can imagine themselves in a different time and place. This requires attention to a wide range of detail including location, language, social attitudes, political climate, the “feel” of a situation, and much more.
Location is a key part of the physical environment that sets the scene for the story. This includes the type of housing and buildings, animals and plant life, transportation, some sense of the number of people, and more. A good example is The Good Earth, where Pearl S. Buck transports us into the Chinese countryside of the early 20th century in the first few pages.
Language balances the tone of the time in which the novel is set, with readability decisions for the modern audience. This could include a sense of formality or informality of language, colloquialisms, and choice of words. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is set in the 14th century. Interspersing its relatively modern language with unexpected phrases gives the sense of a much earlier time, such as when Brunellus comments on the prowess of his novice using the phrase, “May the Holy Ghost sharpen your mind.”
Social attitudes are another factor to consider when writing historical fiction. The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough provides keen insights into the priesthood and social reactions to those who leave the faith. In other novels, social attitudes can be subtle. Amber War, my novel about resistance fighters in Eastern Europe, has a woman leader, but the unknowing Soviets assume this leader is a man because of the attitudes of the day. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is a Soviet officer reacting in disbelief when he realizes this fierce warrior is female.
Political climate is core to some novels such as The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, in which bloody conflict between Indians and the settlers overlays the political divisions between warring British and American governments. Cooper deftly adds social attitudes of the day by showing us the unlikely lovers Uncas, the Indian, and upper-class Cora.
The “feel” of a time is vital as well. History books tell of the British soldiers interred in Japanese POW camps in Indochina, but The Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle shows us prisoner Colonel Nicholson and his men defying Colonel Saito’s orders to work, and then being punished by standing in the scorching sun all day.
Historical fiction demands attention to a wide range of detail in order to bring the history to life and make it meaningful, or personal, to the reader. In my world, there’s plenty of room for facts and fiction, and both play a vital role in telling the story of our past.
Ursula Wong writes about strong women struggling against impossible odds to achieve their dreams. Her new novel, Amber War, continues the rarely told story of Lithuanian farmers fighting the Soviet occupation of WWII. For more about Ursula, visit http://ursulawong.wordpress.com.