I was struggling for inspiration for something to write about this month, until I came across a quote shared by Waterstones on Twitter:
“History tells us what people do; historical fiction helps us imagine how they felt”
– Guy Vanderhaeghe.
This quote resonates with me because it perfectly describes why I prefer reading historical fiction to reading historical non-fiction. Guy Vanderhaeghe is not an author I have come across, but it seems he has written several historical novels set in Canada and the American West. I decided that for this month’s post I would find some more interesting quotes by authors on the subject of historical fiction, beginning with these two on the overlapping of genres:
Historical fiction is actually good preparation for reading SF. Both the historical novelist and the science fiction writer are writing about worlds unlike our own.
– Pamela Sargent
I have always regarded historical fiction and fantasy as sisters under the skin, two genres separated at birth.
– George R.R. Martin
I don’t read a lot of science fiction, but I’ve often felt that there are parallels between historical fiction and fantasy, mainly in the level of detailed worldbuilding required and, as Pamela Sargent says, a sense of unfamiliarity and strangeness. Sometimes fantasy can almost feel like historical fiction and vice versa; in fact, George R.R. Martin’s own A Song of Ice and Fire series is inspired by Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings, a series of seven historical novels telling the story of Philip IV of France and his descendants, a line of kings “cursed to the thirteenth generation” by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, whom Philip sent to burn at the stake. Then there are authors who blend history and fantasy together in the same novel, such as Katherine Arden in her Winternight trilogy, or Guy Gavriel Kay in books like Tigana and Under Heaven.
However, I don’t really agree with this next quote, also by Martin…
As much as I love historical fiction, my problem with historical fiction is that you always know what’s going to happen.
George R.R. Martin
I understand that writing historical fiction must be more restrictive for an author than writing fantasy, but for the reader, unless they have studied the time period or have read about the same subject many times before, they’re not necessarily going to know what will happen. I love reading about historical periods, settings and people I know absolutely nothing about – it’s a good way to learn something new and I try to resist googling things as I read so that I can be surprised by the twists and turns of the story. On the other hand, reading about something unfamiliar to you can cause other problems, as described here by Hilary Mantel:
What really disconcerts commentators, I suspect, is that when they read historical fiction, they feel their own lack of education may be exposed; they panic, because they don’t know which bits are true.
– Hilary Mantel
How can you know ‘which bits are true’? Unless you have time to look everything up, sometimes you have to trust that the author will have done their research and ensured that their novel is as accurate as they could possibly make it. It’s frustrating when you spot something that is clearly wrong or anachronistic, because it makes you wonder if there are other inaccuracies in the book that you haven’t noticed. I agree with what Kate Mosse says here:
I am not a fan of historical fiction that is sloppy in its research or is dishonest about the real history.
– Kate Mosse
I’ll leave you with two more opinions from Barry Unsworth, author of the Booker Prize winner Sacred Hunger, and historical romance author Stephanie Laurens:
Writers of historical fiction are not under the same obligation as historians to find evidence for the statements they make. For us it is sufficient if what we say can’t be disproved or shown to be false.
– Barry Unsworth
Overall, I adhere to the one guiding rule any author writing historical fiction should follow: whatever you describe has to be possible. It may not be common, obvious, or even all that probable, but it absolutely has to be possible.
– Stephanie Laurens
What do you think? Do you agree with any or all of what these authors have to say?
Quotes courtesy of BrainyQuote.com