There are many endless ways for writers to tell a story. For that group of writers, who are fascinated by the stories that comprise our past, that is doubly true.
These stories that make up our history can be told by simply stating the facts, or at least stating them as perceived by the writer, history belonging to the victors, as the saying goes.
Alternately, there is creative nonfiction, the best of it rivaling the most ambitious of novels. The Black Rose by Tanarive Due is the story of Madame C. J. Walker, the first black female millionaire in the United States and is as gripping and emotional as the most imaginative fiction. Eric Larsen’s Devil in the White City, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are other examples of moments in history being masterfully distilled into compelling stories that feel personal, intimate.
And then there is historical fiction
But why write history as fiction?
John W. Gardener, Secretary of Health and Education under Lyndon Johnson once said, ‘history never looks like history when you’re living through it.’
History is what happens on a macro level: bank deregulations, the collapse of manufacturing, worldwide pandemics. But faraway, down on the ground, where people mow their lawns and pick their kids up from daycare, history doesn’t look like history. It looks like the loss of the family business. It looks like jeers of enraged white people as black college students attempt to be served at a Woolworth’s lunch counter. It looks like the panicked calls to the 911 operator that a plane has just hit a building.
For me, this is the ‘why’ of historical fiction. It allows big, sometimes incomprehensible events to be seen through the lens of people who often have very little say over the things that are swirling around them. It allows those events to be absorbed in a visceral way that the mere recitation of fact does not.
Creative nonfiction does some of the same thing, taking huge historical moments and serving them up in smaller, more digestible bits, viewing them through a very particular prism. But . . there still exists the limitations of fact, the need to color within the lines. You can imagine what Abraham Lincoln was thinking as he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation, but the fact of that document, the dates, the circumstances under which it was written, are unalterable.
Historical fiction on the other hand, lends itself to more flexibility, allowing the writer to create a whole world within a world.
We know about the atrocities of WWII, but as seen through the eyes of Liesel in The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, the day to day suffering and struggle takes on a different kind of urgency. These are Germans. They are the bad guys. And yet when Liesel runs to Max as he is being marched to the camps, you want to shout a warning, to protect her from the Nazi soldiers. And when Rudy is killed in an Allied bombing strike you feel heartbroken.
In the end, you are left with the memories of Hans and Rosa and Leisel and Rudy and Max, fictional characters that could represent any one of millions of Germans during the war and yet very real within those pages.
Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is at its heart the love story between Keiko a Japanese-American and Henry who is of Chinese descent. However, it is a love story that takes place against the backdrop of wartime xenophobia and Japanese internment camps. You feel the pain and the impotent rage of two people who love each other, torn apart by circumstances bigger than themselves and over which they have absolutely no control.
Big stories on a small scale.
For me, historical fiction takes place in one those fissures that exist between imagination and fact. It affords me, as a writer, the opportunity to drill down deep into the bits of history, often either forgotten or intentionally buried, and to make them seem personal. It allows history to be reflected in the eyes of characters I create as they move through the mundane of daily life. Even as they’re unaware that it is history they are living through.