Historical Fiction Doesn’t Mean Alternate Reality

I’ve recently come to realize that one of my favorite genres, historical fiction, is largely misunderstood. While even writers can struggle to keep the multitude of sub-genres straight, especially within the romance and young adult categories — “urban fantasy” came and went before I ever understood what it was — historical fiction is far too mainstream to suffer such confusion.

Or is it?

Surely I’m not the only one who upon describing The Nightingale as “historical fiction set during World War II,” faced a reply that immediately assumed the book was about Germany winning the war.

It’s not. Nor does the South win the Civil War in Lincoln in the Bardo.

I can see how it’s easy to get confused, especially by those who don’t read much fiction or who have a tendency to take things too literally. Which isn’t to say that books or television can’t be about those things. For example, Amazon’s Man in the High Castle relies upon the premise of Germany & Japan conquering the United States following World War II.

Yes, it’s about historical events, and yes, it is entirely fictional. But it’s not historical fiction. Works of that type are considered “alternative history.”

It’s About the People, Not the Events

To best understand historical fiction as a genre is to accept that the historical events taking place and the figures whose names and actions we may already know are really just backdrop. Historical fiction teaches us about real-world events through the lives of fictional characters. When done well, we are entertained, inspired, angered, and perhaps even moved to tears all while learning about an aspect of history we probably weren’t aware of.

I got the idea to write this blog upon finishing Part IV of James Michener’s epic Hawaii the other day. For those unfamiliar with Michener’s work, he’s known for writing sprawling, meticulously-researched, thousand-page novels about a place: Hawaii, Alaska, Mexico, and Chesapeake to name a few.

Hawaii begins miles below the sea floor, in the Earth’s upper crust, and traverses geologic time to the arrival of the Tahitians a thousand years ago, before jumping ahead to the New England missionaries who came in the early nineteenth century. Onward through the decades the story marches, telling the tale of Hawaii’s history through a cast of characters modeled after many of the real-life missionaries, immigrants, plantation owners, and native islanders who helped shape the islands, for better or worse.

Through the main characters of the story, Abner Hale, Nyuk Sin, and Whip Hoxworth, we are given a reason to care about the Calvinist’s role in upending Hawaiian beliefs; we’re shown the tragedy of those sent to Molokai during the leprosy outbreak; we’re privy to the greed and unjust ways in which the American plantation owners stole Hawaii out from under the people who called it home.

Textbooks are great at teaching us the dates and names that make up the facts of history, historical fiction puts us in the shoes of those it affected and makes us care.

A Hard Day’s Writing

Though novelists should be well-read in their genre, and I really do enjoy reading historical fiction, I have no intention of ever writing it. The research is just too much.

With Tailwinds Past Florence now in the querying stage, I’m left to begin work on my next novel. As such, I’ve amassed a pile of research materials about the location, it’s history and culture, and also several contemporary novels that share the setting. The book will largely be set in Hawaii. So, as I’m reading Michener’s Hawaii, I’m also combing through Martha Beckwith’s encyclopedia-like doorstop Hawaiian Mythology. I have no doubt that Michener relied heavily upon Beckwith’s work (originally published in 1940) when writing his early chapters.

But whereas Michener needed to comb the annals of history to bring the mythology to life, my goal is less lofty. I wish to merely imbue one of my characters with enough campfire knowledge to be annoying.

Similarly, I had no interest in doing the level of research James Clavell must have undertaken when writing Shogun, but it was while reading his book that I first learned about the Japanese Christians of the 17th century. That, in turn, gave me an idea for a character in Tailwinds Past Florence.

Textbooks are great at teaching us the dates and names that make up the facts of history, historical fiction puts us in the shoes of those it affected and makes us care.

I savor doing a day’s or week’s worth of research to further develop a character or their origin — even if it only earns a couple of sentences in the novel — but I know enough about me, why I write, and what I want to write, to know historical fiction isn’t for me. I’ll leave that heavy lifting to others.

Recommendations in Historical Fiction

Much of the historical fiction that I’ve read takes place during war. This is probably because war serves as convenient mileposts for history, but also because stories need conflict and tension and what better source than war? That’s not to say that these books are about war. Some are, but most of them carry themes of relationships or self-discovery. Here’s a few that I’ve read over the recent years that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend, in no particular order. Descriptions copied from Amazon.

  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah – With courage, grace, and powerful insight, bestselling author Kristin Hannah captures the epic panorama of World War II and illuminates an intimate part of history seldom seen: the women’s war. The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France—a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women. It is a novel for everyone, a novel for a lifetime.
  • Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield – At Thermopylae, a rocky mountain pass in northern Greece, the feared and admired Spartan soldiers stood three hundred strong. Theirs was a suicide mission, to hold the pass against the invading millions of the mighty Persian army. Day after bloody day they withstood the terrible onslaught, buying time for the Greeks to rally their forces. Born into a cult of spiritual courage, physical endurance, and unmatched battle skill, the Spartans would be remembered for the greatest military stand in history–one that would not end until the rocks were awash with blood, leaving only one gravely injured Spartan squire to tell the tale….
  • Hawaii by James Michener — Pulitzer Prize–winning author James A. Michener brings Hawaii’s epic history vividly to life in a classic saga that has captivated readers since its initial publication in 1959. As the volcanic Hawaiian Islands sprout from the ocean floor, the land remains untouched for centuries—until, little more than a thousand years ago, Polynesian seafarers make the perilous journey across the Pacific, flourishing in this tropical paradise according to their ancient traditions. Then, in the early nineteenth century, American missionaries arrive, bringing with them a new creed and a new way of life. Based on exhaustive research and told in Michener’s immersive prose, Hawaii is the story of disparate peoples struggling to keep their identity, live in harmony, and, ultimately, join together.
  • Her Privates We by Fredrick Manning – The classic novel of the Great War, set during the battle of the Somme. Her Privates We follows the story of Private Bourne, an ordinary soldier dealing with extraordinary circumstances. As well as conveying the camaraderie and heroism of the trenches, the novel explores the terror and monotony of being a soldier. A cloud of fatalism hangs over the narrative, which is brightened up through friendships, a shared, grim sense of humour and colourful conversations between the privates.
  • The Wind is Not a River by Brian PaytonThe Wind Is Not a Riveris Brian Payton’s gripping tale of survival and an epic love story in which a husband and wife—separated by the only battle of World War II to take place on American soil—fight to reunite in Alaska’s starkly beautiful Aleutian Islands.
  • Silence by Shusako Endo – Seventeenth-century Japan: Two Portuguese Jesuit priests travel to a country hostile to their religion, where feudal lords force the faithful to publicly renounce their beliefs. Eventually captured and forced to watch their Japanese Christian brothers lay down their lives for their faith, the priests bear witness to unimaginable cruelties that test their own beliefs. Shusaku Endo is one of the most celebrated and well-known Japanese fiction writers of the twentieth century, and Silence is widely considered to be his great masterpiece.
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