On the Anxiety of Writing Historical Fiction: A User’s Manual
Caitlin Horrocks Offers Some Advice for Writing Into the Past
I teach both fiction and creative nonfiction classes, during which my nonfiction students fiercely debate questions that my fiction students don’t even ask. The nonfiction writers wonder how much they’re allowed to speculate, how and when to fill in the gaps of memory or fact; the fiction writers dig in a sandbox seemingly without walls or rules. Right up until you put the word “historical” in front of “fiction.”
Then, we’re dismayed at the sounds our shovels make as they clang against immoveable, hard-edged facts. We start tripping over walls and wondering whether we’ve stumbled into another genre altogether, biography or fantasy. In this sandbox full of information, we look not just for new tools but new rules, a code of conduct for combining fiction and fact.
While researching and writing a novel in which essentially every character was based on someone who had really existed, I struggled constantly with feeling like a literary grave robber, or just a subpar historian. Depicting fictional versions of factual people has been with us as long as literature itself (think of Greek epics, or Shakespeare’s history plays), but I still found myself desperate for permission. I changed the characters’ names away from their real ones, trying to make them more malleable, more mine, to lessen the sense of obligation I felt towards the historical record. Then I realized I didn’t actually want to take the liberties I’d granted myself, and changed the names all back. I did this multiple times.
I think what I really wanted was a visitation from beyond the grave, with each of my characters assuring me that I’d really nailed it, they loved the book, these new versions of themselves were so true! But in lieu of a séance, here are five permissions I wish I’d given myself earlier, and can perhaps give to someone else instead.
Permission #1: A character need not be nor have a diagnosis.
Good fiction is as much about “why?” as it is about the “what if?” of a plot unfolding. But this can translate to an impulse to explain characters to an unhelpful, unrealistic degree.
In The New Yorker, Jill Lepore poked some fun at the author of a 2010 George Washington biography for providing prodigious detail about Washington’s mother, a woman about whom very little is actually known. A 19th-century biographer “thought he knew how Washington wanted to be remembered, but he never supposed he knew what it felt like to be Washington. [The modern biographer] does, not because he knows more but because he thinks differently about what it is to understand someone, which means that he also thinks a whole lot differently about feeling and understanding than Washington did—and that, right there, is the problem. . . . The diagnosis has supplanted the document.”
A problem for a biographer is not necessarily a problem for a novelist, who should absolutely consider what it felt like to be Washington. But where both the biographer and novelist can run into trouble is when the impulse to understand becomes the impulse to over-explain. Obviously fiction concerns itself with why people do the things they do. But those answers for historical characters can be every bit as contradictory and complex as the answers for wholly invented, contemporary characters. A + B rarely equals exactly C in real life.
“I believe that people should write biographies only about people they love, or understand, or both,” the writer Penelope Fitzgerald has said. “Novels, on the other hand, are often better if they’re about people the writer doesn’t like very much.”
Permission #2: Not every painting needs to be a portrait.
There can’t be many better “great man of history” exemplars than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall books, but part of what I enjoy in those books is the effortless inclusion of details like the French ambassador Chapuis’ unlikely hat, or Ann’s yellow gown. The books also provide, despite the close narrative focus on Cromwell’s ascendancy, a rich sense of the world in which he operates, a world that makes his maneuvering both necessary and dangerous. The books provide a portrait of a single historical figure, but Mantel also displays the skills of a painter of landscapes, of still lifes, of action, even of collage.
Tyehimba Jess’s Olio (a word the epigraph defines as “hodgepodge” or “miscellaneous collection” as well as the name for the second act of minstrel shows) manages to tackle, through strategic collage, an entire era of music and the people who made it. Peter Ho Davies’s The Fortunes is composed of four separate sections that provide very different glimpses into Chinese-American history. Kelcey Parker’s novella Liliane’s Balcony, told through a variety of points of view, is less about Frank Lloyd Wright or the people who commissioned Falling Water, as it is about the house itself. A book about even the most accomplished individual can be, should be, about more than that one person.
Permission #3: A life can be a plot.
In an appreciation of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, author Maggie Shipstead wrote, “If plot means dealings among the characters, there is no real progression of plot here, but, at the same time, what plot is grander or more essential than time passing?” I thought of Shipstead’s words while reading Julian Barnes’s novel The Noise of Time, which explores the moral compromises composer Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich was forced to make to maintain his professional life (and to remain alive at all) in the USSR.
And I do mean “explore,” as opposed to narrate or dramatize or depict. The book does not unfold in scenes, but in three long mental monologues, Shostakovich trapped both in his own head, and in the lifelong web of privileges, punishments, and constraints that the Soviet regime placed around him.
The main action of Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney is, as the title suggests, Lillian Boxfish, aged 84, taking a walk, during which various locations prompt memories from her life. These often do not fall neatly into set pieces (wedding, childbirth, divorce, breakdown, etc.), nor do they come in chronological order. There isn’t anything wrong with set pieces—the big battle, the star turn, or the crushing blow—nor with arranging your book to offer the reader the pleasures of suspense, surprises, or hard-won triumphs. But you do not need to arrange it in any particular way, to discard altogether the slower or more unlikely moments that make up a life, and that can be as evocative as the splashy ones.
Permission #4: Don’t worry quite so much about the dialogue.
David Mitchell has written sheepishly about finding anachronisms in his exhaustively researched 18th century historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: “Some were excusable: the verb “to con,” as in “swindle”, first appears in print in 1889… Others were more embarrassing, such as brinkmanship: duh, it’s a Cold War term.” I’m inclined to say both English word choices are “excusable” in a novel in which most of the characters are actually speaking Dutch or Japanese.The house can be a skewed, even surreal version of historical fact, but as long as the reader agrees to take up residence there, that structure and the people inside it can come alive.
The 16th-century Castilian-speakers in Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account eschew “can’t” for “cannot” but otherwise pose straightforward, plainspoken questions that rarely have good answers. As their planned conquest unravels into basic survival, the directness of the only slightly-aged English fits well with the harrowing journey. Besides, if you pay attention to the dialogue in novels written in the 19th century or later, it’s often surprisingly modern to 21st century ears. We make assumptions about our own distance from the past that can lead us towards a pseudo-historical dialect Mitchell calls “bygonese.”
He writes, “Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction’s rib cage: the “historical” half demands fidelity to the past, while the “fiction” half requires infidelity—people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated and the lies of art must be told.” As in creative nonfiction, this is a quandary that historical fiction writers must answer for themselves: what balance of fidelity to imagination? Surely, if we’re bothering to write fiction at all, we might as well err on the side of imagination.
Permission #5: The world of your book is its own world; it refers to other, real-life worlds, but it will not and cannot recreate them.
Maile Chapman’s Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto is memorable not for a panoramic evocation of rural 1920s Finland, but for being set in a sanitarium so isolated and claustrophobic that the book feels like it takes place nearly outside of any identifiable place and time. Kathryn Davis’ novel Versailles unfolds in sketches voiced by an irreverent, sometimes quite modern, Marie Antoinette. The book covers sweeps of time, but can feel as constructed and purposefully miniature as the dollhouse interiors of Marie’s life.
Novels are always dollhouses, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative. They are structures that refer to other structures, out there in the larger world, but they must create their own consistency, adhere to their own logic. The house can be a skewed, even surreal version of historical fact, but as long as the reader agrees to take up residence there, that structure and the people inside it can come alive.
About his Waverley novels, Sir Walter Scott wrote: “By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present November 1st, 1805, I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street…”
The novel itself was still a relatively young form then, and Scott was already struggling with what additional baggage or expectations he thought readers might bring to a historical one. Two hundred years later, writers should allow ourselves to embrace the idea that historical fiction can be as flexible as any other kind. A sandbox with big rocks in it is a pretty great place to play, allowing both towers and holes, and the ability to knock one into the other.
Caitlin Horrocks’ debut novel The Vexations is out now from Little, Brown and Company.