In honor of both Canada Day (July 1st) and Independence day (July 4th), I decided the theme for the month of July’s article will be about historical writing and using facts to help strengthen fiction. For the past few years, I have been doing a lot of research into historical people, places and events in order to incorporate it into my writing.
The basics of any story is a plotline which follows the exploits of the main characters as they attempt to resolve a conflict while making their way to their intended goal. So how exactly does Historical Fiction differ from other genres? In historical movies, the period is set through settings and actors performances and costumes. The same can be said for Historical novels, where the historical elements of the storyline are shown through established facts and carefully fed information (for more information see my post showing and telling).
Historical fiction is a literary genre whose plot takes place in a setting located in the past, be it as recent as a few years or as far back as ancient history. To write it properly, it requires gathering data, analysis of the information acquired, interpretation of facts, attention to detail of the period depicted and a good understanding between its individual parts and the whole. Depending on how historically accurate a writer wants his fiction to be, they will need to learn to how to identify matters that are of historical interest (if the information is relevant or not) and to be objective (not let their personal opinions affect the interpretation of data).
This genre of fiction can be traced to Ancient Greek and Roman literature, in the form of oral and folk traditions, novels, plays and other fictional works describing history. Historical fiction comes in several subgenres:
- Historical writing: This version of the genre approaches historical fiction as evidence-based interpretation. Everything in the story, from settings, characters and events, will be based on recorded facts and as close to reality as possible. The only possible variation from reality may be personal perception. Some common formats for this representation of the genre are the chronicle, the annals, the monumental inscription, the monograph, the treatise and the biography.
- Documentary fiction: A modern day variant of the historical novel is documentary fiction, also called Docufiction. It is a genre which attempts to capture reality such as it is and simultaneously introduces artistic expression in order to strengthen the emotional impact as well as the representation of reality. Common forms of this genre are the re-enactment.
- Legend: A legend is a story which has been passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth or passed as folklore. It contains historic facts mixed in with half-truths in the form of mythical elements. Legends usually have important meaning or symbolism for the culture in which it originates.
- Alternate history: To create alternate history, a writer takes one particular event in time and changes it in some manner. Then, the writer take a modern day look at the world if it had evolved from that changed historical event. Alternate Histories require a lot of innovation and creativity. An often used example, imagine the world if Hitler had won World War 2, where would we all be today?
- Historical fantasy: This subgenre has stories which are loosely based on historic events. They are created by taking historical facts, then adding fantasy elements such as supernatural creatures and sorcery. Imagine if the Titanic was sunk by a Kraken instead of an iceberg.
- Fictional biographies: Also known as the biographical novel, this genre provides a fictional account of a real, historical figure. The story is often written with historical accuracy in mind, but artistic liberties are taken in order to meet the writer’s intentions.
- Historical mysteries: Also known as "Historical whodunits", these are stories with a plot involving the solving of a crime taking place in the past (at least from the point of view of the author). Incorporating historical facts to Mystery stories has been a popular combination for some time. Good examples would be characters like Sherlock Holmes (late 1800’s), Indiana Jones (early to mid-1900’s) and Miss Marple (mid 1900’s).
- Historical romance: Stories involving a romantic situation taking place in a background with details and characters set in a past setting. These types of stories are popular and have been portrayed many times. Classic examples are Pride and Prejudice or Romeo and Juliette.
- Nautical fiction: Fiction involving life at sea, most commonly taking place before the invention of the gas powered engine. These stories often deal with historical elements such as the Napoleonic Wars or plundering pirates. A classic example is Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), or the more recent Pirates of the Caribbean from Disney.
When writing historical fiction, depending on the level of detail and the age of the facts being used, doing so can raise a few concerns, such as copyright, plagiarism or invasion of privacy.
Copyright is the exclusive legal right to control the printing, publishing, or reproducing of material, either literary or artistic in nature, and to authorize who and when others can do so. Issues with copyright can be encountered when dealing with certain historical documents, government records for example, so it is always a good idea to very if copyrights apply. Permissions to use the material can be requested from the rights holder.
Plagiarism has to do with including somebody else’s work in your own. Doing so is incredibly frowned upon, especially from another writer. Like copyright, permission to use the material can be acquired by asking permission from the originator. At the very least, the proper etiquette requires quoting the source of the information being used.
Invasion of privacy refers to the inclusion of personal information in a work, such as a name, address of phone number. Though this may not be a concern when pulling inspiration from historical events older than a hundred years old, using more current events may cause certain issues. When using material that is fairly recent, it is a good idea to modify certain details, such as names and locations, in order to give out any private information.
In closing, I learned that adding historical facts to your fiction helps root the storyline into reality, making it easier for your audience to relate to it and get emotionally involved. I have been researching historical elements for my fiction for the past few years now, but the information I gathered here today has clarified certain aspects of the process for me. Hopefully this has helped you as well.
Until next time.