Taking Stock of Historical Fiction

I changed my topic for today’s blog post several times. In fact, I had it pretty much written and ready to go last Monday. Everything changed on Tuesday morning, when I checked for comments on my blog.

Last Tuesday, one of my blog readers who is Jewish left a heartfelt comment about what I had written about Pam Jenoff’s historical novel, The Woman with the Blue Star, in my July 12, 2021 blog post, 4 Other Books I Read in June 2021.

That reader has more intimate knowledge of the Holocaust than I have and, through an acquaintance who lived in the Krakow sewers, says that the premise of Ms. Jenoff’s book is impossible. I read Ms. Jenoff’s novel as a work of fiction, knowing the story was not true. I didn’t think about the possibility that some readers would be offended by the premise of the book. Prior to reading the novel, I wasn’t aware that some of the Jews in Poland had to hide for their lives in the nasty city sewers. For Ms. Jenoff’s bringing that fact to my attention, I am grateful.

This comment and my response to it served is a reminder about historical fiction – and it’s important to me as a fan of the genre and also a writer of it.

The Woman with the Blue Star, by Pam Jenoff

In fairness to Pam Jenoff, I heard her interviewed about her process in writing this novel. She did extensive research. It is a fact that some Jews took refuge in the sewers in Poland. There were many anti-Semitic people in Poland, but there were also sympathetic Poles who risked their lives to try to save Jews.

I heard Ms. Jenoff interviewed about this novel some weeks ago. I wish I’d taken some notes, so I could share them with you and with the reader who contacted me last week.


Admitting my own bias

I have lived my entire life in North Carolina. Two older ladies were friends of my family. By older, I mean older. Sisters, they were born in 1883 and 1888. Their father fought for the South in the American Civil War. Those sisters drilled it into me that it was “the War Between the States” and not “the Civil War.” That statement was always followed quickly with, “There was nothin’ civil about it.”

That really made an impression on me and even recently I’ve referred to the American Civil War as “the War Between the States.” I’ve written it that way in various things I’ve written and self-published.

I now see my bias. In the future, I will refer to it as “the American Civil War” or “the US Civil War.” It was a war between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America. For me to call it anything else is to twist history and reveal my bias.

I think it was Oprah Winfrey who said, “When you know better, you do better.” Those are words I try to live by. I hope I never get too old to learn new things and new ways to look at things.


The unwritten pact between fiction author and reader

A reader of historical fiction should always keep in mind that they’re reading fiction. Fiction is made up. It’s a story created in the author’s mind; however, there is an unwritten pact between the author and the reader. There should be enough factual information – whether in event or time and place – that the reader can trust that the story is plausible.

It is incumbent upon the writer of historical fiction to do due diligence in research. I heard author Sharyn McCrumb speak a few years ago about her research and writing methodology. As an aspiring historical fiction writer, I was impressed with all she said.

One thing Ms. McCrumb said, though, stood out and remains in the back of my head. I think about it as I’m doing my research, and I think about it every time I hear someone say they don’t read historical fiction. They often go on to say they only read history books.

Ms. McCrumb’s statement that stood out to me that evening was that (and I paraphrase) some historical fiction is better researched than some history books.


History books and their bias

We only need to stop and think about some of the history textbooks we had 50 or 60 years ago. (I can’t speak for the content of current school curriculum history textbooks.) Aside from the recitation of dates of birth and death of persons of alleged import and the dates of battles and the like, much of the way history was presented to students depended upon the author’s point-of-view. Textbooks are usually written from the winner’s perception.

For example, the textbooks I had as a student presented the white settlers’ “conquering” of the frontier as a positive thing. No time was spent trying to view the 1600s to the present through the eyes of a Native American. If the Cherokee Trail of Tears was even mentioned, it was only in passing.

Some Southerners still maintain that the American Civil War was fought over “states’ rights.” (Many of those same people still refer to that war as “the War of Northern Aggression.”)  I have relatives who still maintain that as the truth and will argue me down that it had nothing to do with slavery. Some people learned certain things about the Civil War and no facts today will change their minds.

If we are to be true students of history, I believe we should read both sides of the story. Both sides are tainted by the personal experience of the writer but, by the same token, both sides of the story probably contain some truth.

The antebellum American South has been romanticized to the hilt by such novels as Gone With the Wind. Confederate generals have been portrayed as dashing and religious Southern gentleman who fought for the honor of hearth and home. In some cases, that’s who they were. But they were basically fighting to maintain the status quo. Even if they didn’t own slaves, they didn’t have any quarrel with the institution of slavery. The economy was built upon it. What would happen if there were no slaves? They couldn’t imagine such a world.

Renowned historical novelist James Alexander Thom wrote a book called The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction. In it, he wrote the following: “History contains many errors because each person sees the same incident differently or remembers it differently. History textbooks are biased depending on the agenda of the writer, the publisher, the state, the school board.”


What James Alexander Thom wrote about historical fiction

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom

Here are four quotes from The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom:

But fiction is not the opposite of truth. Fiction means ‘created by imagination.’ And there is plenty of evidence everywhere in literature and art that imagination can get as close to truth as studious fact-finding can.”

“Most early American white men thought women should be seen but not heard. As a historical novelist, you might wish to make your hero ‘politically correct’ by today’s standards, but if you do that, you’ll be lying to your readers.”

To be really good historical novelists, though (and that’s what I want us to be), we have to take our obligation to historical truth just as seriously as the historians do theirs. But we don’t have to bear the burden of being the authority on every factual detail. Our disclaimer is right there on the cover: a novel.”

But here’s the key: Whether your historical story is ancient or recent history, what you want to do is re-create it in full – live, colorful, smelly, noisy, savory, painful, repugnant, scary, all the ways it actually was – and then set the reader down smack in the midst of it.”

I’ve referred to James Alexander Thom in a number of my blog posts over the years. One of them was my February 12, 2019 blog post, Two for Tuesday: Two Books that Helped Me Fall in Love with Reading.


Until my next blog post

Time will tell what my blog will be about next Monday. I hope you’ll come back next week to find out.

I’ll continue to read and write historical fiction. Mr. Thom says good historical novelists are respected by historians. That’s what I aspire to be.

Let me know what you like or don’t like about my blog. I’m especially trying to reach people who like reading historical fiction and have an interest in Early American history. I also enjoy exploring current events and discussing them with people from around the world. It amazes me every week to see that people from around the world have read my blog. In that respect alone, I think blogging and the internet are wondrous avenues for the sharing of ideas.

You never know. A comment you make about one of my blog posts might stop me in my tracks and force me to dig a little deeper into a subject or even admit I’ve been wrong.

Thank you for reading my blog. All comments, opinions, criticisms, and corrections are welcome.

Janet

14 thoughts on “Taking Stock of Historical Fiction

  1. You’re welcome, Davida — and thank you for prompting the conversation and my digging deeper to try to view the book from your perspective. I appreciate your reading my follow-up blog post and taking the time to comment again.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! Thank you, Ms. Pene. What a compliment! I’m really trying. I’ve read some enlightening books this month. I’ll share my thoughts on them in two or three blog posts in August. I’m learning just how many things I’ve been told for 68 years just aren’t true — and how many things have happened that I never knew about.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m part of an online historical fiction writers group, whose full title re-jigged is FABCHOW, but I’ve forgotten the real title… anyway, we look a good bit at the concept of midrash and your quotes made me think of that. Thank you Janet.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for leaving a comment, Dawn. I wasn’t familiar with the word “midrash” until reading your comment, so I looked it up. I can’t find any references to it except regarding the interpretation of ancient Hebrew writings. Any light you can shed on the word as it applies to our writing today and critiques would be very much appreciated. It’s the best way for me to learn. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you, Janet. I’ll do my best to answer, though I’m sure your research shows more. So, in my understanding, it is mostly used for those who right historical fiction using characters from the Bible – there are huge ‘stories’ written from the point of view of maybe Mary the mother of Jesus, or the Apsostle Peter, or some lesser known character – this ‘filling in the gaps’ from what is known and hinted at to what could feasibly have been done, eaten, expected etc, is referred to as midrash. But I think it is the same process that all historical fiction writers use, when they are looking for accuracy filled out to create a story.

    Liked by 1 person

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