Historical fiction isn’t so much about bringing history to life as it is about bringing life to history.
Despite the occasional hounding by factually concerned historians, authors Michelle Aung Thin, Jane Caro, Sulari Gentill and Rohan Wilson each believe that the key to good historical fiction is human truths.
When she decided it was time to write a novel, Caro chose a time and a character that she already loved. Just a Girl is the story of a young Elizabeth Tudor awaiting coronation. Historical fiction gave Caro the license to write about Elizabeth the way she had always imagined her – as a normal girl in extraordinary circumstances.
“Its not about facts, its about what feels true” explained Caro, the great joy of being a novelist is you get the best of both worlds. The solidity of recorded history with the freedom to make legends and stories real, and the creation of a fully rounded person from their two dimensional existence in the history books.
The Rowland Sinclair series authored by Gentill is set in the 1930s. There is a real risk in historical fiction that the characters become lost within the language. It is vital, Gentill said, that the occasional historical inaccuracy be accepted in order to accurately depict the character. It is after all the characters’ experience that a reader connects with, and the historical context is simply the backdrop.
Wilson spent four years writing his award winning novel The Roving Party. Initially, Wilson set out to write his novel about a time period in general, but John Bateman’s story stuck out. Sometimes cast hero, sometimes villain, John Bateman is a prominent figure in the history of Tasmania. For Wilson, Bateman is a scumbag. Wilson took his time perfecting the dialogue in the novel, going over and over, changing words and moving full stops to create the kind of harshness and anger he imagined his characters using.
While focusing on those who have been papered over by recorded history, Thin’s characters are all fictional. Thin believes that readers look for the personal and the insightful, the truth of stories that leave a “searing on the soul”. Although Thin writes about a time she didn’t experience and a place, she cannot remember she does see herself in her work.
“If there’s nothing uncomfortable or personal about what you’re writing, then maybe you’re writing the wrong thing,” says Thin.
Good historical fiction is about respecting characters and the time they inhabited but its more important to tell a darn good story then it is to be absolutely faithful to the facts. Whether you think its more important to bring life to history or history to life, straddling the disciplines of fiction and history brings richness to our collective backgrounds that neither genre could achieve alone.
Emily Handley is a Southern Cross University media student.