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

Z is for Zilch!

Zilch is what I’ve accomplished toward starting over to write my first historical novel. I have successfully completed the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge by writing a post today that has something to do with the letter “Z.” I enjoyed parts of the challenge, but I’m glad English only has 26 letters! It was interesting and I picked up some new followers, but I don’t think I’ll do it again. Beginning on Tuesday, May 2, I plan to return to my former routine of blogging on Tuesdays and Fridays.

2017 A to Z Challenge Badge
Blogging from A to Z Challenge Badge 2017

With this blog challenge finished

I look forward to having more time to delve back into the various resources available to me as I keep researching the facts surrounding the core event in The Spanish Coin manuscript. Several more books are coming from two public library systems, so you know what I’ll be doing next week.

What happened to The Spanish Coin?

I revealed in my “H is for Historical Fiction” blog post on April 10, 2017 (H is for Historical Fiction) that I had discovered some pertinent information about the core of my story that necessitated my starting over. Several years (actually a decade) and 96,000 words later, I’m back to having a blank page.

My options

Since April 10 I have done a lot of thinking and reading. I’ll need to do a little more work on the research end of things and then determine how to rewrite The Spanish Coin. It might not survive with that working title. Or I might be able to salvage that title and change the circumstances of its importance. Or I might just take the spark of the true story as my inspiration and write a totally new story.

When I figure out which option to settle on, I’ll let you know.

With the A to Z Blog Challenge Finished

I look forward to having time to read more books. My current “Books I Want to Read” list is so long I fear I won’t live long enough to read all of them. With new books being released every month, the list just keeps growing.

Until my next blog (which should be on May 2)

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m enjoying Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult, World of Toil and Strife: Community Transformation in Backcountry South Carolina, 1750-1805, by Peter N. Moore, and The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, by James Alexander Thom. I have to take note and reread parts of Mr. Thom’s book occasionally. The bibliography in Mr. Moore’s book has already led me to more books I need to read before I figure out the verdict for The Spanish Coin.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time. I hope you’ve gotten past the blank page stage on your first novel.

Janet

H is for Historical Fiction

This is the eighth day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, so I am writing a blog post that has something to do with the letter, “H.” I chose a topic I enjoy and one about which I try to learn more every day.

One of my dreams is to write a historical novel. The historian in me struggles with the fiction in historical fiction. The writer in me wishes I could run fast and loose with the facts.

Over the weekend, I did a lot of reading on the subject in preparation for writing today’s blog post. In the process, I found some information that shed more light on the historical event that serves as the basis for the novel manuscript I’ve been working on for the last decade or so.

The combination of the new information I found about that event when paired with some of the reading I did yesterday about the craft of writing historical fiction made my head spin. The combination of the two, in fact, has convinced me that I must start over writing my novel. Yes, you read that correctly. I must start over.

When I mapped out my topics for this A to Z Blog Challenge two or three weeks ago, I thought “H” was a no-brainer. I could write about historical fiction. Today’s post would be one of the easier ones of the 26 letters of the alphabet. That’s laughable now, except I don’t feel much like laughing.

I won’t see The Spanish Coin in print. Not in its present form. Probably not in any form or with that title. I will, however, be able to use parts of it and characters from it.

None of my research has been in vain. Nor has any of my writing. Any time spent writing is beneficial. Writing is an exercise of “muscles” in the brain. Like any other muscles in the body, if not used they weaken and eventually cease to work.

The bad news is that I have to start over. The good news is that I get to start over. Today I get a fresh start.

I’m certainly not the first writer who never got her first novel published. There are numerous stories about first manuscripts being lost. Some succumbed to fire, while others were mistakenly left on a train and were never seen again. Many first manuscripts get rejected so many times by publishers that the writer eventually puts it away and moves on to another novel. Most writers have had to start over. That is what I will do, and I believe the end product will be better than The Spanish Coin manuscript.

Historians, as a rule, look at historical fiction with disdain. I want to be a historical novelist whose work is respected even by historians. Something I learned from historical fiction author Sharyn McCrumb and from author James Alexander Thom is that historical fiction can be just as — or even more — accurate than a history textbook.

History contains many errors because each person sees the same incident differently or remembers it differently. History textbooks contain errors and are biased depending on the agenda of the writer(s), the publisher, or the state school board or local school’s decision makers selecting the curriculum. History books are usually written by someone on the winning side of a war. The viewpoint of the losing side is rarely given or, if it is, it is what the winner thinks the loser thought or believed.

James Alexander Thom quotes author Lucia Robson in his book, The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction as he wrote the following:

“Lucia Robson’s facts can be trusted if, say, you’re a teacher assigning her novels as supplemental reading in a history class. ‘Researching as meticulously as a historian is not an obligation but a necessity,’ she tells me. ‘But I research differently from most historians. I’m look for details of daily life of the period that might not be important to someone tightly focused on certain events and individuals. Novelists do take conscious liberties by depicting not only what people did but trying to explain why they did it.’”

writing~~element3

Mr. Thom also wrote in that same book about writing historical fiction:

“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.”

He also wrote,

“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.”

Many years ago, I read Follow the River, by James Alexander Thom. His writing was so good that I felt like I was in the story. I felt like I was Mary Ingles, the main character.

If I’m going to write historical fiction, this is my challenge: Get all the facts right, as far as research makes that possible, and flavor the story with believable dialogue and enough authentic background to make my reader feel like he or she is there.

The story I want to write takes place in the Carolina backcountry in 1771. In order to take my reader there, I must go there. I must be there.

Until my next blog post

Please hang in there with me. I’ve always thought of my blog as a way to take readers along on my journey as a writer. The road is not straight. It contains many curves, hill, and potholes. Yesterday I ran up on an unexpected detour.

As a traveler, I don’t like detours. I’m the type person who drives other people crazy. I map out the entire trip in advance. I have a daily itinerary planned. I leave little time for serendipity. That’s the way I plan vacations and yet, when I look back on the best trips of my life, it is the ones that weren’t so rigidly planned that I enjoyed the most.

Fasten your seatbelts, because this writer’s journey just got a lot more exciting and uncertain!

Janet

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