* historical fiction

Posted by Lew Weinstein on January 26, 2012

Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett

  • Follett starts with a one page historical preface about the D-Day deception. He ends the preface … “That much is history. What follows is fiction. Still and all, one suspects something like this must have happened.”
  • the high stakes of blowing the deception plan are emphasized several times … Godliman: “If one decent Abwehr agent in Britain gets to know about Fortitude … we could lose the fucking war.”
  • But of course we know that D Day was successful and we didn’t lose the war. Follett creates tension about an event where we know the actual outcome, ie that Faber cannot succeed.
  • this is much like Forsythe in Day of the Jackal (published in the early 1970s, before Eye of the Needle), where we know that De Gaulle was not murdered by a sniper but are carried into great tension anyway.
  • Perhaps the tension is maintained because we don’t know if Faber will fail, or if he will succeed but Hitler doesn’t act on his knowledge.
  • However, we are told repeatedly, by Hitler himself, that he will be guided by Faber’s report.

Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini

  • The occasional insertion of the narrator’s voice into the story, and the reference to supposed actual documents (Andre-Louis’s Confession, playbills, newspaper articles) add historical credibility to the fictional adventure.

Silence in Hanover Close by Anne Perry

  • Perry provides the timing of the story by giving the date of the burglary to be re-investigated – “about three years ago – October seventeenth, 1884, to be precise.”
  • “star-glazing” is explained … a burglar’s technique … what this does is add verisimilitude, and give the reader confidence that the author knows the period she is describing.
  • this technique can be overdone, if it appears that the author is just showing off her knowledge.   ·
  • Perry has Emily read real novels published in the time frame of the story. A good way to reinforce that time frame.
  • Perry explains terms that a modern reader could not be expected to know.

The Writer’s Chapbook edited by George Plimpton

  • John Irving … I begin by telling the truth, by remembering real people … but the people aren’t quite interesting enough … I exaggerate … soon I’m on my way to a lie
  • Graham Greene … one never knows enough about characters in real life to put them into novels … one must imagine what one does not know, but what is imagined should be consistent enough with what is known so that it is believable to a knowledgeable reader

The Scarlet City & In A Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse

  • This frustrating historical novel, first published in Holland in 1952, opaquely treats the early 16th century: the machinations of papal and imperial forces have divided all of Italy into scheming factions, and mercenary soldiers gather to sack Rome.
  • Haasse ( In a Dark Wood Wandering ) chooses a nonlinear approach: various historical figures alternately narrate a series of complicated events. This structure bleeds the narrative of its intrinsic drama.
  • critical episodes invariably take place offstage, characters enter and exit abruptly, and the single-minded concerns of the individual protagonists overshadow the central action.
  • Those who don’t know much about this thorny patch of history will be thoroughly adrift; on the other hand, anyone familiar with even a snippet of the works of the figures incarnated here will chafe at Haasse’s shallow and simplistic interpretations.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

  • the specific date (Friday noon, July the 20th, 1714) and number of people who die (5) in the first sentence adds versimmilitude. (Stein)
  • Wilder chooses to have a 20th century narrator for a story set in 1714. Why? What does this accomplish? Does it makes the story seem true?

comments on “historical fiction” by author David Liss, who writes historical fiction

  • Like pretty much everything else in the universe, historical fiction can be divided into two categories.
    • On the one hand are books that use real historical events and people as a springboard for the author’s imagined events and people.
    • On the other hand are novels that limit their scope to characters and events from the archives.
  • I strongly favor books of the first kind and shy away from the second.
  • History — fortunately — tends to make for great history. Reality, however, does not necessarily make for great fiction.

The Spooky Art by Norman Mailer

  • Ancient Evenings, a book about ancient Egypt, took 11years to write
  • if a novelist can take actual people who are legendary figures and invent episodes for them that are believable, he has done something fine.
  • the trick in doing a historical novel is to digest your research (before writing your fiction based on it)
  • in researching ancient Egypt, I felt I knew things that the average (historian) didn’t – not more about the details, but more about the underlying reasons for what was done
  • both the historian and the novelist are engaged in writing fiction, making an attack on the possible nature of reality
  • there is an inevitable slipperiness to most available facts … when we think we are approaching reality, we are only writing a scenario to comprehend it, a hypothesis that seems correct until new evidence subverts it.
  • Trust the evidence of your senses until they are revealed as inadequate, tricked or betrayed – then refine them
  • history in Mailer’s view seems quite like the process of scientific discovery; I think he’s right.



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