If calling myself a historical novelist leads readers to expect something I don't deliver, then I need a new description. But is "creative non-fiction" a better term? Here's a working definition:
Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry — in her book The Art of Fact — suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.” By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,” which she claims allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.” The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is “The scene”. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage. The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.”
That's pretty much what I try to do. My books have:
So that settles it, right? Not so fast. Once I started reading more articles about this "new" mixture of fiction and nonfiction, I kept finding cautionary warnings.
And there's the problem. My characters are all real people, but they lived 150 years ago. They can't defend themselves. Neither can I interview them, or ask others around them to help me reconstruct what happened or to describe a conversation. I have no videos, or tape recordings, or sworn testimonies. Sometimes the existing evidence (as happened with the life of Nellie Chase) is completely lacking. Sometimes (as happened with the Laura Towne diaries) it has been edited beyond recognition. Facts tend to get lost between the cracks of passing time. My books cannot live up to the standards of journalism; therefore, they are probably not "creative nonfiction, either.
So perhaps I need to coin my own term. How does "biographical fiction" sound? We'll look at that tomorrow.