Kate Allan

The online diary of Kate Allan, author

Friday, September 09, 2005

Historical fiction and history

I have my column for Solander magazine to put together and I was wondering how far historical fiction has a role in the teaching of history. And how far historical fiction authors consider themselves (amateur?) historians.

I know that I love writing the early nineteenth century period because it's a period of history with a zeitgiest I love and want to communicate and share it with others. I also know that I take my research pretty seriously and that I want to show people aspects of the past they've not come across before. Perhaps in a way I want to challenge their preconceptions.

What about you? If you write historical fiction, what is the role of history in your historical fiction? And if you read historical fiction, how much of it is about learning and appreciating stuff about the past?


  • At 1:04 pm, Blogger Alex Bordessa said…

    For me, the story must grow out of the history and so be completely rooted in it. There is a big element of the story being unique to its time, yet the human truths are eternal (or somefink like that!) This goes for when I read hf or write it.

    Good luck with the column, and I look forward to reading it :-)

  • At 4:52 pm, Blogger Me Again said…

    Not only do I read and write historical fiction, but I'm also an archaeologist. As such, accurate history (at least as much as possible) is a MUST. Aside from blatant historical innacuracy, my biggest pet peeve is when the writer gets so wrapped up in the time period that the heart of the story or the character is lost. I've read a couple of novels where the author threw in so many details, or so many obscure, historical lingo, that I tossed the book in the second chapter.

    Historical fiction is a wonderful way to teach history - when taken with a grain of salt, of course. It simultaneously reminds us of how different times were in the past, and how little people have changed through time.

    Writing is an art. It's hard enough to weave together a piece of fiction. Writing historical fiction is an art and a science. One must seamlessly weave together fiction and fact.

  • At 2:04 pm, Blogger Tess said…

    History is integral to my fiction - I search for details to make sure I get things right. And, as far as possible, try to give my characters the sensibilities of their eras rather than 21st Century ones.

    As for reading HF - it's a combination of both losing myself in the past and learning about it.

    HF is, IMHO, a great way to interest people in history. Get them wondering about the characters - especially books that fictionalize the lives of real people.

  • At 4:31 pm, Blogger Patry Francis said…

    As a reader, I like the opportunity to enter another period in time. The layering and the details that you find in fiction are something you don't find in a dry history book.

  • At 6:35 pm, Blogger Sarah Cuthbertson said…

    For me, reading historical fiction is around 50% learning history (or having my perceptions challenged) and 50% character and story. I agree with Alex that the story must grow out of the history. So must the characters, as far as that's possible. I wouldn't trust an author to tell me anything about a period if he or she indulges in the kind of politically-correct anachronism that gives an HF character highly unlikely 21st-century sensibilities (what else might that author be tinkering about with?). Sometimes it's a failure of research, sometimes just plain laziness. But sometimes, I think, it's a conscious decision designed make a character more likeable or understandable to us moderns. To me, though, it means the author doesn't trust readers or credit them with any empathetic intelligence.

    I wish history teachers would encourage children to read historical fiction set in periods they're learning about. I believe this happens more in the USA than in the UK. Almost everyone I know who loves history has come to it via children's historical fiction.

  • At 1:53 am, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I love reading and writing historical fiction. I think history is important but it can go over the top. I hate it when I spot mistakes though. In my own writing I try to make everything as accurate as possible but not put things in just for the sake of it. However, if I'm describing a real-life battle I do like to put in dates and get the troop movements and things right where my characters are placed.

    Sometimes it's necessary for historical fiction writers to twist the truth. I know Bernard Cornwell does it because he admits to it in a historical note eg borrowing a person's history for one of his characters. Sometimes 100% accuracy is sacrificed for the sake of a story which is fine as long as it's believable.

    I do get annoyed with little things like the Peerage system with inaccurate references.

    Lastly I think it's a great way to learn AND have fun. My school never covered the Napoleonic era for some reason but I really got into it through reading Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series.

  • At 9:40 am, Blogger Kate Allan said…

    Oh, thanks for all your comments. It's going to be really interesting putting this short piece together. :)

  • At 11:49 pm, Blogger Bernita said…

    There is some history in my fiction. I strive to keep it accurate. One cannot be too didactic, however, about what constitutes attitudes in certain early time periods. Sometimes they were more modern than some sweeping social commentators would have us believe.

  • At 8:42 pm, Blogger jar said…

    The way I write my stories, the main line is fictional, of course--but there can be no deviation, otherwise! My created characters are of course fictional, as well as some of the action by historical figures. But when I assert that such-and-such happened at a certain place on a certain date, anyone wishing to do so has to be able to verify that fact. Integrity is key! Having said that, there is a certain amount of leeway one takes when interpreting the meaning the events in question, and that is sometimes up for grabs, yes?

  • At 4:58 am, Blogger Elindomiel said…

    It's a great bonus to me if I read a peice of Historical Fiction and end up learning something out of it, but I'm not overly particular about it as long as things seem real and fit together. I just see the history as an extremely rich setting, in most cases. Historical events and times can open up entire different plot avenues, though, which is interesting. ^^


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