Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

Throughout the conversation, I was struck by the similarities between historical fiction writing and public history. Alexander and Calkins both explained how historical fiction can illuminate nuances and complications of past societies in a way that a broad audience finds approachable. As Calkins pointed out, people learn a lot from books about the trends of the past. Historical fiction writers therefore have an obligation to perform due diligence to stay true to the research they perform while also creating an engaging story.

Public historians have to be mindful of similar concerns in the work they do. A living historian may be a fictional character from the past, but they must stay true to the language and wardrobe of the time period they represent. Curators and exhibit designers have to craft engaging narratives while juggling limited space and resources. Archivists make information about the past available for consumption, leading people to discover new information about the past.

By the end of the conversation, I felt that historical fiction writers like Alexander and Calkins are public historians like me. They have to keep their audience in mind at all times, but they also want to stay true to their training as historians. These two authors have successfully navigated the territory between the academy and the public, and their conversation opened my mind to new career possibilities that I had not yet considered.

Maggie McClain

What I appreciated most about the conversation was that both authors discussed why they love writing historical fiction and what their favorite parts of the process are, but also explained the difficulties they face from their resources, their publishers, their readers, and themselves. The authors described how much they enjoy conducting historical research, sometimes to the extent that researching the period distracts them from focusing on plot and from writing the novel itself. Sometimes they have to tear themselves away from the research process, or let go of their desire to be as historically accurate as possible, in order to meet their deadlines!
Some of the challenges the authors discussed were the risks of imposing modern views on a historical character as well as maintaining historical accuracy and period word choice. Historical fiction writers tread carefully when taking historical liberties for the sake of plot or to fill a gap in the historical record, knowing that they might suffer disgruntled letters from their readers. Likewise, the authors described the challenges of dealing with publishing decisions not within their control, such as what artwork appears on the cover of their work. Having mentally critiqued a few novel covers I’ve seen on bookshelves myself, I was interested (and perhaps a bit chagrined!) to be reminded that authors have very little control over cover art, and that their recommendations are frequently ignored.
Kelly Schmidt

Historical fiction’s relationship with academic history has always been hotly contested; in our public history methods and theory class last semester, we students continued that debate. We discussed how the genre has been characterized as disreputable since classical antiquity— stories referred to as “bodice-rippers” that pay little attention to history except for being set in the past.  In their conversation at the Newberry, Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins discussed their writing processes, their lengthy research excursions, and what matters most to them about their work. Their conversation revealed that their stories are not vapid tales lacking insightfulness, but stories that rely heavily on historical accuracy.

In general, Alexander and Calkins impressed me with their careful avoidance of assigning their characters agency they would not have had in the past. I read quite a bit of historical fiction for pleasure, and it is jarring when I see twenty-first century thought processes in a character set in the distant past. Calkins and Alexander briefly discussed similar critiques they have received about their writing: many readers have complained that certain aspects of these authors’ stories are not plausible. Alexander mentioned the difference between historical accuracy and plausibility and the dangers of doing implausible things within historical context. Calkins and Alexander are cognizant of these contextual pitfalls and work hard to avoid them.

Both women prioritize historical accuracy to a very high degree. In her writing, Alexander specifically makes a point to visit the setting of each of her stories and walk everywhere she goes. That way, when she discusses her character’s travels, the distance they travel and the time taken to reach each destination is plausible in reality. I loved Calkins’ commentary about the importance of an accurate and vivid setting in the writing of historical fiction. Because characters interact with their environment just as much as they do with other characters, Calkins treats the setting as a character of its own. Calkins uses language to give readers the “flavor of the time” and signal a departure from contemporary America, but omits enough detail to allow us to use our imaginations.

First and foremost, Calkins and Alexander are novelists, and the fictional elements they add to their stories compel readers to use their own imaginations, to entertain them. However, the fictional aspects they add are based on meticulous research. It is clear that they revere historical accuracy just as much as academic historians. Historical fiction writers like Calkins and Alexander can connect with the modern reader in a unique way because they have the freedom to speculate and fill gaps in the historical record. Their imaginative elements can inspire readers to perform their own research and delve deeper into aspects of history that spark their own interests. Sarah Bowers, co-editor of the Historical Novels Review, sums this up succinctly: “If the past is another country, historical novelists are not so much the tour guides as the PR people who create the alluring adverts which beckon us in.”

Hannah Zuber

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