One of the questions I struggle with has to do with the boundary lines between fiction and non-fiction. Perhaps because of my academic background, I can argue that no such line exists. "Facts" are elusive and hard to pin down. Many of the things we thought we knew for certain prove to be false. New information emerges to change our views on all sorts of topics. And history? It's only what we think we know about something at any given moment. History changes.
So when does a historical account of a particular event become historical fiction? That's just one of the issues that will be addressed by the Institute for Historical Research when they open their online conference, Novel Approaches, in a couple of weeks. I'll be interested to hear the views of other writers, but before we get into the discussion, I want to get my own position written down. That doesn't mean I think I'm right. I just want a stance from which to begin. So here's an outline of the distinctions i make when I try to label a particular book as fiction or non-fiction. Roughly, it follows the position I established in a panel on this topic at the Military Writers Society of America conference in September.
A history of a particular event, or a biography of a person, must be based on documented evidence. If you tell me that someone said X, I want to see the proof--a letter, an official report, a diary. If you are quoting someone, I want to know where the quote appeared. Just as a scientist might approach new research, I want to be able to duplicate your findings. Now, at this point, most historians are cringing and shaking their heads because they know how very difficult it can be to find such evidence. Still, if you tell me that your story is true, I expect you to be able to prove it. And what you cannot prove, you must omit.
Much of what we casually label as non-fiction or biography should actually be labeled "creative non-fiction." This is a category in which the author relies on fact, insofar as the facts are known. But if there are gaps in the records, if events cannot be determined, then the author is free to speculate or fill in those gaps with the most plausible solution. If I read such a book, I expect to find the author admitting which parts come from his or her creative imagination and which ones are factual in nature. If you check my book, Beyond All Price, you will find at the end a section called "Author's Note," in which I carefully lay out which few characters are products of my imagination. I also discuss how I filled in the gaps in Nellie Chase's life story.
Authors who have used creative non-fiction well include Colleen McCullough, in her series of books on the age of the Caesars, and Sharon Kay Penman in her wonderful books on medieval English rulers and their families. In both cases, I know the authors have done their homework, have read all the pertinent documents, have walked the streets they describe, and consulted the best historical accounts. These authors are writing history, not fiction. Their talent lies in their creative ability to make their historical figures come alive for modern readers.
But what about historical fiction? How does that differ from creative non-fiction? Here's where I draw the line. Historical fiction takes imaginary characters and places them in an accurate historical setting. Le's take just one example. Sharan Newman has extensive academic credentials in medieval history and does her research in some of the world's best-known medieval archives, but her series of historical novels, set in 12th-century France, features a wholly imaginary Jewish girl named Catherine Levendeur. Catherine lives in a historically-accurate world and encounters some real medieval persons. She struggles with the real challenges of her time, but her life and experiences are fictional. That's historical fiction at its best.
What sets historical fiction apart from general fiction or historical fantasy? Consider Diana Gabaldon's "Outlander" series. The author paints what seems to be a wonderfully realistic picture of 18th-century American life, but her characters are time-travelers who pass "through the stones" to arrive on the scene of critical moments in the American colonies. They have completely fictional encounters with people whose names we recognize, which makes them seem believable. These time-travelers comment on the historical events happening before their eyes, but their reactions are anything but historical. Jamie, the 16th-century Highlander, is sometimes overcome with admiration for the wonderful accomplishments of the 18th-century, while Claire, a 20th-century woman, must struggle with the temptation to introduce modern knowledge into a world not yet ready to accept it. The novels make great escape reading, but their history is unreliable, if not misleading.
Questions remain about the popularity of these various categories. How do you react? When you read a novel set in a particular time and place, do you want your history to be accurate? Or are you more interested in the story than the setting?