Friday, November 21, 2008

Broad Spectrum or Dig Deep?

I had a conversation with Tristi Pinkston at the Provident Book Grand Opening about different approaches to historical fiction, and I've often thought about the approach I took to my Civil War series. Tristi and I basically discussed the difference between taking a big look at something, kind of like stepping back and taking in the panoramic view vs. narrowing in on one slice of an event and delving deeply into it.

For example, when I wrote Faith of our Fathers, my goal was to give the reader a very broad overview of the WHOLE thing. Different cities, battles, events, etc. In order to do that, I created characters and placed them in strategic places so we could see all of those events through their eyes.

This approach allowed me to look at the whole of the conflict, but at only, say, a foot below the surface. If an author were to take one particular town, for example, and focus on one family during the Civil War, she would be able to go more like six, ten, fifteen feet deep. As far as she wants to, really.

Historical Fiction is an interesting animal. Seems like people usually love it or hate it. Purist, arm-chair historians tend to prefer the nonfiction approach to history. For readers who like a more humanized, (for lack of a better word), look at history, the fictional element helps. Fiction is also more entertaining, usually, and many readers enjoy that element.

There is danger in fictionalizing history, I think. I felt this weight when I wrote the series. As an author, you run the risk of people thinking that the "truth" as you see it as an author is, in fact, gospel. Sometimes it's just personal opinion. I felt a huge responsibility to portray real, living people as they were, and not to allow my view of things to alter what they may have said or did. I would venture to guess that other authors of historical fiction would agree with me. You just don't want to get it wrong! When I wrote that series, I said a lot of prayers.

Any strong opinions on this, one way or another? Do you prefer fiction or non when it comes to reading your history? Do you like a broad overview or an in-depth chunk?


Tristi Pinkston said...

It was a great discussion! I've thought on it several times in the last week, you thought provoking person, you!

David G. Woolley said...

No opinion. To have one would bias history. And who wants to be a historical fiction revisionist anyway? I like my historical fiction with just the facts, maam.

I'm going to think about this and post later. Its way to late to do otherwise.

KarinB said...

"Purist, arm-chair historians tend to prefer the nonfiction approach to history."
-Okay Nancy, sorry but that's me. I am one of those boring people who prefers the dry fact to fiction any day. HOWEVER, there is nothing more enjoyable than losing oneself in a juicy piece of historical fiction. And it takes a tremendous amount of research even to write one so kudos to all who write, fiction or no!!!

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

You know, sometimes it just depends on my mood. It's probably that way for a lot of people. I also go through phases where I read nonfiction for awhile, then glut myself on nothing but romance or sci-fi with some Tom Clancy and Jeffrey Archer thrown in for good measure.

And I'm suddenly off-topic. Those have nothing to do with historical fiction.

David G. Woolley said...

I think there are four major points that need to be considered when writing historical fiction or talking about that careful line between fiction and history.

Historical accuracy.

Soft Research.

Hard Reserach.


I'm likely going to use this comment as the starting point (and probably the ending point) for a post at my blog, but I can at least say that I did my rough draft here at the N.C. Allen blog. Doesn't that sound like a law firm? N.C. Allen. Or maybe a toothpaste. Get your whitest white from N.C. Allen. Okay. Back to the historical fiction commentary, but first, a few words from other notables on the subject:

If you look at all early literature in all cultures – even oral cultures – you find that the first stories that they tell are hero stories about their own ancestors and forebears. A man who boasts about himself is simply that – a boaster. But a man who boasts about his pedigree: well, he’s giving you REASONS why he is superior!

In all cultures, historical fiction is the most natural form of story-telling.

—Richard Lee, Author


William Rainbolt, Moses Rose:  A Tale of the Alamo and Survivors—a novel

During a book signing for my novel, I found myself facing a polite but somewhat agitated Texas history buff—and there must be millions of Texas history buffs who can get quickly agitated over their subject.  He forced himself to make a few nice comments about my novel, Moses Rose, a tale based on a Texas legend about a former Napoleonic soldier who chose to leave the Alamo the night before the Mexican Army’s final assault.

“But,” he finally said, his jaw tightening and that solemn history-buff glint now in his eye, “you really changed the history of what actually happened.  That scene with Rose being interrogated after killing that guy in Nacogdoches . . . I mean, that didn’t happen, not the killing or that trial.  Your book is not historical about a lot of things.” He was firm, and certain.  I had “changed the history.”  A certain scene “didn’t happen.”  And—gasp!—the novel is “not historical about a lot of things.”
“You’re right,” I agreed.  “It’s not history.  It’s fiction.”


—Sue Peabody Ph.D. History, OSU

When I was hired as a temporary library employee a few years ago, my supervisor asked me during the job orientation, "Do you know the difference between fiction and non-fiction?"

I stammered, tongue-tied for a few moments, until I realized that she was asking a simple yes-or-no question, not demanding an air-tight philosophical definition.

I finally responded, "Yes, I do," but I was left with the lingering suspicion that I had lied.


—Joyce Sarracks, PhD English, Oregon State University

Historical fiction makes a point of conveying a serious respect for historical accuracy and detail, and its intention, beyond providing reading pleasure, is to enhance the reader's knowledge of past events, lives, and customs


Okay. I'm back.

Those of us who write historical fiction tell stories that make shapes and characters out of the past, which either glorify or anaesthetize struggles. Most of all, we tell the things that we hope will catch the listener’s interest. And we are not always too worried about whether or not these stories are precisely true—and certainly not in an historian’s “verifiable” sense of truth.

Soft reserach in historical fiction is that hands on stuff. It includes the author's experience. Cultural surroundings of the historical setting. The actual setting. Indigenous people. Language. Food. And the list goes on. This is an area that requires an entire comment and post and chapter.

Hard reserach requires reading history, documents, commentary. It is the backbone of historical fiction because from the reserch story ideas, plots, motivations, climaxes, characters all come to life. To the lay person a piece of worn yellow paper in a library collection is yet another boring document in a long successive line of boring documents, but to the author of historical fiction the reservation expressed by Queen Isabella transforms the parchment into a revocation notice of her support of Columbus’ voyage at the final hour which was to be delivered to the sea captain immediately, but which the messenger intentionally delayed delivery until after the Santa Maria set sail. And exactly why he delayed adds another twist to the unfolding story.

Hard reserach concerns itself with Authenticity. Verifiability. And Invetion. And this is where, I believe, those reading the question posed by NC Allen in her post begin to take sides on the merits of historical fiction. You get into all sorts of things like artifacts that survived from the past. Coins. Records. Ruins. Jewelry. Weapons. Treasure and fortune. And it is precisely these hard reserach points which leads the writer of historical fiction to one of the most important aspects of the genre. Invention.

Each of these points would require a rather long commentary here and I am going to save them for a post or possibly a number of posts on my blog. But I will say this about historical fiction: If we sit down to tell our children or grand children about someone they have never met—someone, perhaps, who was dear to us—we don’t try to sum up that person’s life. We tell stories.

Those who read historical fiction want history to come alive through exciting, dramatic, clever, or entertaining stories. They are also looking to the past for understanding of the present and intimations of what the future may bring. Those who write historical fiction want our stories to be amusing to tell, to make the events of the past come back to us, and to bring it alive for our listeners. And we make heroes—sometimes comic heroes—of those we have known. Anything, so long as what is dear to us is not forgotten. That’s historical fiction—and it is probably the most fundamental human literary need.

And that's why we read and why we write in another time and place. They call it historical fiction.

We call it ressurrecting the past and preserving it.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

So very true, and I loved the quotes. I love sentiments encapsulated in such a succint way, so thanks for sharing.

I also look forward to reading your entire blog and feel very gratified that it started here. ;-) It really is a topic that invites thought, and I especially appreciate your comment about stories. People want stories, and I think that's what resonates with me the most when I look at history.

There's a reason the Savior taught in parables.

David G. Woolley said...

And another thing. Althouse? I went there because of your blog list. Terrible. Obscene. What the heck. They use words that would get an FCC $300,000.00 fine in the first offense and double that on the second and third. I know there is a disclaimer and all, but why them?

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Oh, dear. I'm so sorry, Dave. I need to put a double disclaimer on her, I guess!

One of the reasons I like Anne Althouse is because she's a bright woman, supposedly conservative, but leans toward center, which is where I reside. I like her take on things, and tend to agree with her. As for what she posts that may not be suitable, or what her respondant's say, I'm sorry if you were offended. I mean that, truly.

Ok. I'll put a better disclaimer on her link. Again, my sincere apologies.

David G. Woolley said...

I'm teasing, of course. I have this mental picture of the author wearing a cowboy hat, jeans, and carrying a shotgun. Just don't let her teach kindergarten. I'll be she trained the Marin Corp. in a former life.


Nancy Campbell Allen said...

Whew. I'm relieved. I pictured my links as the reason for your downfall. :-)

Oddly enough, the author is this polished, attractive professor of law. Go figure!