The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
History Is A Mere Backdrop To A Story
You have a story idea and you like history. Now you have to put the two together.
Writing historical fiction has its challenges. The story may be about a period in time that some readers know very little about or they may know more than the writer. Regardless, the historical facts of the story need to be researched and then used to help tell the story.
A writer considers the facts and then utilizes all five senses and weaves them into a story to make both facts and senses real. And don’t forget, a fiction writer takes “creative liberties” with their story. Does that mean the facts are distorted or changed? No. There are limits to how a writer wants to relay the facts to readers.
A writer might consider historical accounts and, based on other lesser-known facts, use them to conceptualize an event or situation. The purpose is to make the story readable, believable, or spark thought-provoking alternatives to traditionally known facts.
For example, in the novel A Gentleman in Moscow, author Amor Towles mixes both fact and fiction. Towles spent more than 20 years in the investment business before becoming an author. He tells the story of a Russian aristocrat living under house arrest in a luxury hotel for more than 30 years.
Towles admits he is not an historian and his book is not a book of history. “I generally like to mix glimpses of history with flights of fancy until the reader isn’t exactly sure of what’s real and what isn’t,” says Towles. He sees the task of a novelist differently. He describes it as using “the backdrop of history to tell a story.”
When I was researching for my story, The Final Crossing which is set in the Ancient World (Egypt and Mesopotamia), I was intrigued by the history of biblical events or phenomena. In my research I discovered that manna, the so-called “bread from heaven”, was a unique substance that grew on desert shrubs. After they fell to the ground, they were collected, ground and pounded into cakes and then baked. Bible passages tell the story of the Israelites eating manna, sent by their god, during their trek across the desert. In my story the protagonist learns about this mann es-sama from Bedouins living in the desert. I try to show that even what many believed to be a miracle from above can be explained in Nature.
It’s important to remember that a writer is not writing a history book, yet care must be taken so that all those interesting pieces of information, unearthed in research, do not end up as “info-dump” in the story but rather become an integral part of the story that keeps the momentum moving. They can be sprinkled into the story, invoking a picture for the reader of the scene or story as a whole.
Here’s another way to look at it, in a simplistic sort of way. A painter prepares his canvas and may choose to paint the backdrop first. Strokes of colours, accents in shades – all to help bring the painting to life. Then the painter adds what he or she wants to depict – the focus of the painting. We look at the finished work, perhaps of a man, his face wrinkled like old leather, his eyes staring in determination. In the background, grey clouds overlook a farmer’s corn field ready for harvest. The painting is about the man. The backdrop tells us something about the man and his world.
It’s the same with historical fiction. The history is a backdrop to what the story is about – the protagonist and his quest. The backdrop helps create an accurate representation of the protagonist – his world and the events that propel him towards his goal.
So, is history a mere backdrop to a story? It’s more than just a backdrop. It’s the canvas, carefully prepared to help bring characters and settings to life.
How do you see history in historical fiction novels? I’d like to hear from you.
Until next time.