Monday, March 29, 2010

History vs. Historical Fiction - A Case of the Willies

I got the willies two weeks ago during the revision of my novel. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, I can't write about this real brother and sister from 1920. Her descendants are still alive. They will protest.

I have written nonfiction history and contemporary fiction. But in my current novel, I am putting my two loves together. I have written two historical fiction picture books, but never a novel. A long-running stumbling block for me has been that all my historical fiction main characters are based on real people. I find it so fascinating that they actually lived through these events. But my determination to be accurate and honor the actual history, so critical for a nonfiction writer, does not always serve the fictional narrative. Until now I have sometimes criticized historical fiction writers who I believed played too loose with the facts. My current story sticks closely to the actual historical events, but my main character is placed in a situation that likely in real life she was not. And that's where my doubts crept in. Maybe she needs to be a fully made up character I told myself. But I'd already tried that and it hadn't worked. I'd fallen in love with my Ottie, and couldn't give her up.

I talked to my writing group, the very group who responded to a draft of my gold rush novel a few years ago - "I know it really happened, Claire, but some of this isn't working . . . " I emailed Liza Ketchum, asking how she has handled this dilemma. She wrote back that her serialized novel, ORPHAN JOURNEY HOME, was based on the story of a real family of orphans who actually did make a similar journey in 1828. But she changed some details to make the story work. Almost two hundred years later, descendants got in touch with her after they read her story in newspapers across the country. They were thrilled that the family story had come back to life. "You can do this, Claire," Liza wrote me.

Still I worried. So many adult novels use real historical people. But not many children/YA novels, unless based on family history. I decided to do some reading, find some more examples, for safety sake. Like we ever have that as writers.

In one article, Sue Reichard wrote about the two types of historical fiction. The first kind is when the setting is historical, but there are no historical events or persons in the story, like "Catherine Called Birdy" by Karen Cushman. The second type is when both the setting and characters are factual. Like Melanie Benjamin's new historical novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, which centers on Alice Liddell --- best known as the "real" Alice in Wonderland from the works of Lewis Carroll. But Liddel's new novel is for adults. (

I kept searching. A posting on writer Crawford Killian's blog helped me finally understand what I needed to do. "Historical Fiction with Real People" (
He concludes: "But the point I'm finally making is that you are using your characters, not the other way around. If you're thinking of writing about a former US president, he has to dramatize your vision of the world—both as it is now and as it was in his time. You may use lots of historical factoids, but they're really just window-dressing. The key question for you is this: How do I make this person in history provide "anecdotal evidence" for my view of the world?"

Sounds like writing any novel to me. Still I worried. I talked to my agent. She talked to Editor/writer Marc Aronson. He said, "no problem." So what was my problem?

In researching my main character and her family, the local historical society had already given me the contact info for her 80-year-old nephew. The NF writer in me was thrilled. I love primary source interviews. But the fiction writer in me - oh, my. What if he didn't like that I was fictionalizing his family story? But Harry, Jr. was the only one who seemed to have some historical information I needed. I dove in, confessed to Harry what I was doing. The fiction part didn't register a blip on his screen. All my worries for not. He has emailed me some many terrific details about small town life and the historic period. I couldn't be luckier. And he seems to enjoy sharing.

Maybe it wasn't the fiction/nonfiction dilemma that gave me the willies after all. Maybe it was me, letting that old doubt creep in. But now I have recommitted and am whaling away. And I am grateful to everyone who has helped me get there. Sometimes those doubts help us dig deeper into the story, even while kicking and screaming that we've dug enough. How about you? Done any digging lately? Overcome any doubts?


  1. I've written a picture book during my semester with Phyllis Root. It's historical fiction. The main character is...a house.
    I'm still researching and getting some help for the interviews I can't travel for, but a historical fiction picture book is something I never considered.

    I wonder what makes something historical enough to be historical fiction. I've researched the roots of Kansas City history enough to write a tall tale (picture book) about the invention of barbeque sauce. This can't be historical fiction can it? Isn't it just a picture book with some researched elements for inspiration?

    Now I wonder if I should write a non fiction version to go along with it, just about Barbeque sauce. I wonder who would want to read it and why I (who don't even eat the stuff) am so interested in writing it.

    What I'm really keyed up about is literary fakes. I'm dying to write several--only for adults. I believe a literary fake is like historical fiction only it takes place in the present. It's something that could be true, but isn't. Well I guess that's fiction. Hmmm, I need to get back with my library cataloger friends to figure this one out.

  2. I must admit that after reading this I think I won't add historical fiction to my "to do" list. I've got enough willies to last a lifetime. As you say Claire, letting the old doubt creep in. It's so good to hear someone address that and the need to put that away.

  3. I have included several historical people in my novel. I will include a disclaimer in my author's note that says these were real people whose actions in this story were fictionalized. They are not my main characters, however. If I were to write a sequel to this book, it would need to include John Brown, as he appeared on the scene during the months immediately following my current story.

    Eleanora Tate included several real people in Celeste's Harlem Renaissance. Her main character meets them and in some cases exchanges a few lines of dialogue with them, but they are not at the center of her story.

    After working on a nf picture book about Nisei (1st generation Japanese-Americans) college students during WWII, I have considered taking that general story line and using it for a YA historical. I have many 1st person accounts of incidents that could be worked into the plot. But, as with you Claire, I worry about using these real-life stories of people, many of whom are still living. Maybe now I'll be brave enough to do it.

  4. Oh yes, Claire. It's so hard to not look over your shoulder while writing or to ignore all the whispering you imagine you hear from back there. When I dipped into family history and used real lives to inform my Vietnam novels the voices were so loud. And I'm sure it's especially hard when the voices belong to real people you haven't met or know slightly but want to honor.

    But what's the story saying? Why is it so hard for us to listen to that instead? Is it a result of being a scrupulous historian/reporter or is it connected to a lifetime of being a good girl/nice boy?

  5. Marsha, you might have hit it on the nail. I've spent a lifetime being a good girl. Not always so helpful for a writer.

  6. Claire, I sympathize. Facts are a seductive source of confidence. They give nonfiction writers the feeling that what we are writing is important because it is about something/someone else other than ourselves, plus the security in knowing that our information can be traced back to reliable sources. Of course nonfiction books are as much about the writer as they are about the subject. And fiction books are as much about the subject as they are about the writer. But it's easier to play the mind trick of getting up the chutzpah to write a story when it doesn't stray from documented sources.