The Case for Historical Fiction

historical-fiction

Why Historical Fiction?

If history is the study of past events, why not stick to that? Explore what really happened. Research and collect the evidence. Sift out the truth by means of analysis and logic.

Every historical novelist bumps up against this question sooner or later. There are professional historians out there. Clever, highly educated people who devote themselves full-time to clarifying and understanding the people and events of the past. What can a writer of fiction offer that won’t be mere imagination? How can an amateur historian, without all that academic certification, expect to do other than create some feeble version of ‘real’ history?

Stories versus Histories

In certain ways, even the most respected historians have rarely stuck only to verifiable facts. Herodotus, the Greek ‘Father of History’ peppered his books with stories, many of them extremely far-fetched. The sober Roman Tacitus included lengthy, verbatim speeches that were never made and he could never have been present to hear. Even today’s historians use the ‘facts’, including abstruse statistics, mostly to support an interpretation that must, at its heart, be based on personal conclusions.

There is also the awkward point that a good many of the ‘facts’ that most people believe about the past have come, not from histories, but from stories about history.

Most of us recall what we read in historical fiction far better than the ‘objective’ facts of history. Our ideas about the Roman emperor Claudius will likely never escape the fiction of Robert Graves. Our view of the Tudor court is, right now, being changed – perhaps permanently – by Hilary Mantel and Wolf Hall. As a guide at a National Trust property, I frequently encounter visitors who ‘know’ all about some aspect of the past that is based entirely on a book, a TV serial or a film. When I must point out, politely, that it is not correct, I am often sure that nothing will change. They will remain convinced of the misinformation, and probably tell their friends how ignorant some NT guides can be.

Most History is Human

When you think about it, there seems little reason to designate certain types of ‘history’ by other names. Archaeology, palaeontology, geology and even astronomy are all concerned to a great degree with past events. Yet we do not count them as history. Some even restrict the scope of history to the periods and places for which written evidence exists, as if the people excluded by this are, in some way, less than fully human.

There, I think, is the crux. If history is essentially human-centred and linked to the ways we and our ancestors create or response to the world around us, no amount of inanimate evidence will ever be quite enough. We understand other humans mostly through their words and behaviour – especially their words. If I cannot hear someone speak, or read what they have written, I lack an essential element in making sense of their lives and actions.

Life and Death

Academic, analytical and evidence-based history may describe realities, but only fiction stands any chance of bringing the feelings, hopes and fears of a time past alive again, however imperfectly. A skull can be studied, analysed and categorised. All this may ‘tell’ us important things about the past. Yet we are not fooled. The skull ‘tells’ us nothing. The dead cannot speak. All we are hearing are the ideas and opinions of people alive today.

Writers of historical fiction, like all other story-tellers, are concerned principally with the thoughts, ideas and feelings of their characters. That’s why, in presenting past events through these prisms, they can sometimes come closer to the reality of the time, as perceived by those who lived then, than even the most learned and professional historian.

Let the Past Speak!

In fiction, the dead do indeed speak. While they do, they feel as real to us as if they were standing before us, alive once more. That’s why good historical fiction is so powerful. It engages our emotions in a way that no recitation of facts or conclusions ever can.

In the end, maybe this is what historical fiction will always do best: reveal the ways in which major events were seen and felt by individuals alive at the time. Catch us up in their experience. Let us hear their voices and see their behaviour as events unfold around them. Let us believe we understand something of their lives and emotions.

The facts are not diminished by any of this. They remain essential. Without sticking as closely to them as we can, at least in the major items, what I write is pure fantasy, not historical fiction. And fantasy is quite another genre.


William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.

For eleven years, Will and his wife lived in the USA, latterly in southern Arizona. This experience sparked an enduring love of the breathtaking beauty of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the history of the American West, especially Native American art and culture. As a result, Will became intrigued by the figure of Coyote: the Trickster God of many indigenous cultures across western states of the USA.

Will’s book of fantasy Coyote stories – in affectionate homage to this powerful archetype of human experience – will be published later in the year.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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