Historical Fiction and the Historian, or why I’m not as different from fiction writers as I thought

I’m currently taking an online class about historical fiction. For whatever reason, writing fiction of any kind has never appealed for me; I’m taking the class because I’m interested in learning about the genre, not attempting to join it. However, the class has spent a lot of time discussing the relationship between historical fiction and historical scholarship, and it has gotten me thinking about my own work as an historian in ways I didn’t really expect.

Many of the articles and lectures I was assigned for the first part of the course discussed how historical fiction and historical scholarship feed each other. Historical fiction is often viewed as the low-brow, inaccurate, even tawdry cousin of scholarship. I must confess that I thought of it that way before I started this class, likely because I was primarily familiar with young adult historical romances, which aren’t at all to my taste. As I’ve already learned, however, not all historical fiction is like this. I was surprised to discover that some very successful scholars also write historical fiction and see the two genres as sides of the same coin. The mindsets and knowledge bases, they seem to indicate, are not identical but very much related. What I’ve found most fascinating so far is the idea that writing historical fiction is basically taking scholarship a step further, using the historical record as a base but then going beyond it to tell stories that theoretically could have happened, but fall outside the realm of scholarship because there isn’t evidence to back them up even if they were, by chance, real. *

Strangely enough, this reminds me of the first time I realized that I really enjoyed doing historical research. I fell in love with the idea of writing my own little piece of history – finding all the clues and putting them together so that I can reconstruct a small something that previously only existed in fragments of text, image, and seemingly-unconnected bits of history. The result, though rooted quite thoroughly in the real and true past, is mine in the sense that no one else has ever considered it the way I do or written it down in their own words. I always know that I can rarely, if ever, conclusively prove that my little piece of history is true, or accurate, or ever actually happened, but for some reason that just makes it more exciting. I weigh out everything I know about a given situation and make my best conclusions based on that, but at the end of the day I only have my own convictions and belief in the correctness of my reasoning, because I can’t go back in time and check. If I’ve done my work properly, I have this tantalizing idea that what I’m saying is correct, but I’ll never truly know.

Of course, sometimes I can actually prove it, which is immensely gratifying. The other day, I was researching a signature for work. There were a few people who could potentially have been the signer; I was able to identify which was most likely but had very little evidence beyond process of elimination. Just as I was about to email my results to my boss, I realized that the figure whose signature I suspected I was looking at, while not particularly important himself, wrote to important enough people that the Library of Congress might have scanned copies of the correspondence online. Within five minutes, I had letters from this man to George Washington and Thomas Jefferson on my screen, and the signatures were exact matches to the document I was researching. I was thrilled! I knew that I had done my research properly, so my hypothesis always stood a good chance of being correct, but now I was absolutely certain that I had made the right conclusions. Unfortunately, my discovery meant that the letter was worth much less than it otherwise could have been, but the feeling of excitement at having my theory proven right before my eyes was still quite satisfying.

As an historian, I’m unable to propose hypotheses that can’t be backed up by the historical record, which an historical fiction writer can, but we’re both very heavily engaged with the tantalizing mysteries of the past, which for the most part can never be completely solved. As an academic, I have to follow the historical record wherever it leads me, and I can’t allow myself to venture off to the degree a fiction writer can, but instead, I do get those occasional, phenomenal moments when I can actually, definitively know I was correct. I’m still not about to go write a novel, historical or otherwise, but I find it so cool and interesting that the things I love about historical scholarship are some of the same things that draw people to write historical fiction as well.

* This concept has come up a number of times in the class, but the best explanation of it probably comes from Matthew J. Phillpott’s “A Novel Approaches prelude: A Brief History of Historical Fiction”, which he wrote in November 2011 for the IHR’s “Novel Approaches” virtual conference on historical fiction. Particularly look at the section entitled “Postmodernism and Historical Fiction”, which is sections 13-14 online or pages 11-13 of the pdf version.

One thought on “Historical Fiction and the Historian, or why I’m not as different from fiction writers as I thought

  1. I like the idea that historical fiction can bring the facts to life, but I know so many times stories “require” a deviation from the truth to maintain the storyline, and for that reason I can never trust such novels for accuracy. Still, it’s intriguing to know that historians of worth delve into this type of writing.

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