Thursday, 29 July 2021

Historians and History in Fiction, by Gillian Polack


Right now, I’m not in the Middle Ages. I’m in the seventeenth century. An important part of my research is looking at whether one novelist in particular frames her seventeenth century story so tightly within genre, that a lot of history simply doesn’t belong there. I’ll talk about this novel somewhere else or some other time, for I’m still in the early stages of analysis. One thing I am certain about: the genre we choose for our fiction informs the type of history we use for it. I am certain about it because it was a part of my research a few years ago.

One of the new things this project is teaching me is rather important for all fiction: when we write novels, we are making stories come to life for readers.

Simple, really. Except it’s not at all simple. Most branches of history (as in the discipline studied by historians) do not include this in their desired outcomes. As historians we’re learning about the past, testing hypotheses, finding out what other historians know, trying to understand our small specialisation and trying to interpret our small specialisation. Very few of us are trying to bring history to life for general readers.

To my mind (and I have strong biases on this!), the historical disciplines that come closest to what novelists do are ethnohistory and living history. The focus in these disciplines is on ethnography and culture and changes over time (ethnohistory) and how real people lived their everyday (living history). They overlap with each other.

My own disciplines are ethnohistory and historiography, which is my very weak excuse for giving you a truly oversimplified description of ethnohistory. Most of my writing, fiction and non-fiction, is informed by ethnohistory, in fact. I have two new novels in the last eight months, and both of them use it, even though one of them doesn’t look as if it should. Let’s start with the other, then, because it’s easier. (I ought to talk about my previous novel, Poison & Light, because it’s all history, even though it’s set in the future. The whole premise is about how we try to bring history into our present, so it’s complicated. It has, I must say, fine costumes.)

Poison & Light


The Green Children Help Out is a fantasy novel, but everything in it rests on history. The history is not solely ethnohistory, but ethnohistory is the wheel that turns everything in the story. The villains are villainous because of how they interpret what has happened to themselves and to others in the past. The heroes are terribly heroic because they don’t want the past to happen again. Every step my characters take is on land I’ve researched and using history I know. This is the novel I went to Amiens to research in 2018. 

The Green Children Help Out


I have pictures of old land use and new land use, of land affected by war and land affected by building over hundreds of years. The ethnohistory embedded into the novel doesn’t shout “Look! History!” it simply informs the characters, giving each of them complex pasts and real lives. It also informs the plot, for the Australians and the British and the French and the sole Singaporean all have quite different national histories and those histories can push individuals from those backgrounds towards certain paths and make certain choices inevitable.

Borderlanders is quite different. It’s set in a house with no clear history. A magic house, settled somehow in the middle of a mountain range not too far from where I live. There’s a gale blowing from me to there, as I type. 



The ethnohistory is still so much part of Borderlanders. Some parts of culture go with us everywhere and those things have history. Folk beliefs, food preferences, belief in magic or even caring to think about magic: all these things can be written without ethnohistory in mind, but in my case… ethnohistory is always there. My reminder to my readers that it’s always there is the library in this very special house.

My thoughts about ethnohistory are not the only ones. In fact, I’m at one of the edges of the spectrum of ethnohistorians because of how I entered the discipline and because, honestly, not many ethnohistorians write novels. This means I can teach writers how to use ethnohistory, and I do, when they need it as a tool.

What about living history? Every historical fiction writer uses living history in their work, whether they intend to or not. It’s the stuff that brings a scene from the past to life. When you read about someone walking down a muddy street and they wish they had worn pattens and their feet hurt from the cobbles and… that is living history.

There are some amazing places to learn living history. Museums, for example, will create displays that are not simply objects in a cabinet, but objects that make me want to pick them up and use them. Some fairs (and also many museums) bring experts in to not only show everyday life, but to talk about it. I have a friend who’s an archaeologist and who is expert in textiles. You can see her work at museums in Germany. You can ask her questions and understand what spinning means and what it is in the life of an ordinary woman in the Middle Ages.

When a scholar is studying living religion, they look at the part religion plays in the lives of people and how religion is expressed. It’s not the theory of religion. It’s ordinary life. How does their religion inform their world view? What religious customs do they bring into their everyday?

Obviously there’s large overlap between ethnohistory and living history. In fact, as disciplines, they inform each other. And both of them inform fiction writers.

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