I was rejected yeserday -- or, rather, my newest book, The Road to Frogmore, was -- by a potential reviewer who complained that it wasn't historical fiction. She didn't much like the fact that my writing was "sophisticated" (that was her word), or that it contained long passages of narration. She didn't want a history lesson; she didn't want so many facts; she didn't want so much research. She wanted action, sweat, input from all five senses.-- I guess she was expecting a bodice-ripper, not a thoughtful story of a real person with an abiding passion for justice and equally.
My reactions varied as the day wore on. Anger, at first, was followed by hurt feelings, and then by a fit of giggles as I pictured Miss Laura Towne swooning in the arms of her virile general lover. Nope, that would have never been believable. She was too straight-laced and proper, and he was a wimpy little fellow with a funny-looking mustache.
So what am I to make of the refusal to write a review? Well, gratitude, first of all. She could have just skewered me in public and given me a single star. But there's more going on than that. I think she told me something important, just as another correspondent did earlier in the week. The first one suggested that every writer needs to know and understand her audience. We'll, I certainly got it wrong with this one! What this reviewer told me was that I'm not really writing her kind of historical fiction. The book would be better used, she said, as a teaching device. Of course! That's what I am, after all -- a history professor, a researcher, a searcher after the truth, an academic. I try to teach people things -- with varying degrees of success.
OK! Got it! She's right. I'm probably NOT writing historical fiction. My books are more history than fiction. And my audiences is not the reader who wants the kind of historical fiction that features a lot of swash-buckling heroes and dainty damsels who just happen to live in a time period that's more exciting than the present. My audience is to be found among the lovers of history -- those who want to understand what really happened.
It turns out that the correct term for what I do is "creative nonfiction." My books start with historical facts, supported by documented evidence, and then use some of the techniques of the story-teller to make the historical incidents come alive in the minds of the reader.
I think I'll spend some time this week exploring that definition in more detail.