Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Musings on Historical Fiction

Historical fiction can loosely be defined as an original work of fiction which takes place in an historical period and is usually set against important historical events. The story may or may not include more than passing references to those events, and may or may not contain famous personages of the time as major or minor characters. However, the goal is not to reproduce an historical event, but to use it as a “stage” on which to enact an original story. Sometimes, the historical research is extensive and impeccable. Sometimes there is minimal research, and the author plays fast and loose with even well known facts. Usually, however, main or crucial events aren’t changed. For example if Julius Caesar had avoided the assassination attempt, or survived it, the fiction would change from historical to alternate history (an interesting genre in itself.). Characters who never existed do things that never (but perhaps could have) happened. If one is to enjoy such fiction, it is important to understand that it is not history. It isn’t even, at least directly, a commentary on history. It is not objective, either, because we are seeing the events from the viewpoint of the fictional characters, and perhaps, through them, the author. In other words, it is history seen through a specific lens. I don’t think this devalues historical fiction. If it is well done, the reader can gain an understanding of a specific time period or event by seeing a different perspective, and can interact with that event in the way one does when reading good fiction. Many people, young and not so young, have been drawn into an interest in history itself not from a textbook, but from a good historical novel. Any appraisal of historical novels, therefore, should be made keeping these things in mind, and evaluated not solely on historical accuracy, important as that is, but also, and perhaps primarily, on the original story. Such books must meet 2 criteria, then, that of accuracy and good research, and that applied to works of fiction.

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