First, my background. I am an ethnohistorian as well as a fiction writer. For History and Fiction I analysed novels using my background in historiography, but I also interviewed writers. Writers are wonderful people to ask probing questions of. I have 80,000 words of answers to prove this.
What was I researching? Different types of novelists hold different types of conversations with history. Also, most novelists hold different types of conversations with history to historians. Today I’ll focus on speculative fiction, with a lot of the Middle Ages, because I was, am, and always will be, a Medieval historian.
When I talk with writers about history, writers reply intimately, personally. Their answers give us amazing insights into how they work and think. The personal is the passion of the history in our fiction. These emotions are important for successful writers: many writers I’ve spoken to who don’t carry that emotion move onto other things or leave historical writing behind. This passion is not a question of ability or of writing skills, because those writers who moved on had short stories published and some have written novels not besotted with history. All the writers who had this passion for history, however, have had successful careers as writers of historical fiction, fantasy, time travel, young adult fiction, period mystery and more. I suspect that the passion for history carries emotion into the novel and helps connect with readers.
Quite simply, any novel where the writer is at a distance from their subject is going to carry a different emotional burden from the same type of novel written by someone who cares.
Before I go any further, I need to define the past and history. I would like us to be on the same page, rather than me on a page of vellum and you on a computer screen. It’s possible to communicate across vellum and a screen but it’s much easier if we use the same words. The past and history, those words, shift in definition so much that I’m going to choose one among many possibilities.
The past, then, here and now, is the temporal opposite to the future. The events in the past are gone. They are out of reach. They cannot be reconstructed in the exact shape they occurred. They cannot be revived. They are not a narrative. History is all narrative. It draws on evidence of the past and it interprets the past. Story is essential to it and fiction writers are some of the creators of this story. When we think about anything historical, we are thinking about the history, not the past. Mediated narrative. Story. The word ‘historia’ in fact, is the Latin word for story, and that’s no coincidence.
History in fiction is part of the world building and it’s essential to the story. I used this satirically in my own novel Poison and Light, where I had my planetary inhabitants re-invent the 18th century. They weren’t living in the past. They were living in their stories about the past. Not everyone told the same story. One character wants power, for example. Another wants the French Revolution.
One of the most perfect examples of where the history is integral both to the world building and to the story is when Connie Willis pays homage to a work by Jerome K Jerome in To Say Nothing of the Dog. The novel is a delightful frivol in our imagined England and it holds together because of the way Willis depicts that imagined England using stuff many readers already recognise. The Thames of the story is not in a real place or time.
To Say Nothing of the Dog is a near-perfect demonstration of the fact that our invented worlds rest on what we know of history, how we see history, what games we want to play with history. When we write using a known bit of history, for instance, a new tale about Richard and the Princes in the Tower, we validate that. When we invent something that argues against common historical constructs, that’s different. We pull our opinions about history into story.
How novelists do this through using history is by bringing readers into a narrative based on an invented world that rests upon their own interpretation of history. This is partly the role of story, taking readers with it on a journey. A novel that doesn’t bring readers into its journey is very hard to read.
When a novelist chooses something familiar to readers, as Michael Crichton’s Timeline does with its sort-of-heroic Middle Ages, that validates the approach to the story and also expands the cultural validity of the historical constructs. Crichton’s book pushed more people into a particular Middle Ages, where a modern hobbyist could hold his own against professional fighters. Timeline still has so many fans, and to the best of my knowledge, not a single one of those fans are Medieval historians. In fact, because novels validate cultural constructs, unless those constructs are the same as the ones valued by historians, historians are likely to dislike them. Timeline is a wonderful example of this. So, also, is The Doomsday Book. What works for popular fiction can fail historians.
I was saying this, as is my wont, and Van Ikin (an Australian literary critic and academic) challenged me to prove it. I wrote my own Medieval history time travel novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305. When it was released, I watched my Medieval circles closely. I am still welcome in those circles, so my novel validated the way Medieval Studies people see the Middle Ages… but my novel will never sell well, because it doesn’t validate the constructs the wider public normally associates with the Middle Ages.
History in fiction is not about accuracy. It’s about meeting the needs of the novel and the expectations of readers. You can see how this works for yourselves if you read Timeline and compare it with Langue[dot]doc 1305. There are writers who are clever enough in both worlds to cross that divide. For the fantasy Middle Ages, the gold standard for this is Judith Tarr.
Fiction is way more important than we like to admit. It supports culture, it transmits culture and it changes culture. It helps us translate our own experience into words and constructs that help us move through our lives, and to interpret what’s going on. George RR Martin is a useful testing ground for this. Game of Thrones both validates people who want to break down rule of law, and allows others to appreciate the role of law in maintaining a stable society. Why did I bring up Westeros? Because that dual view of a lawful and a broken society that Martin shares is part of US culture. We’ve seen it playing out. Stories matter.
Stories help us interpret the past, and they underpin our own understanding of the world we live in. We use them to discover truth and to place ourselves in a cultural context, and more. And, for the record, religious stories also fill this function. Never dismiss the importance of religion in giving cultural validation. The fact that we live in largely Christian societies means that the ‘neutral’ position for novels is not actually neutral at all. It validates our Christianity-based societies. In Muslim countries, the neutral setting is Islam.
Tolkien’s cauldron of story is handy for understanding this. You can find it in his essay On Fairy Stories. People like me are the chemists who work out what element does which, but most writers and readers are looking for flavour and texture, a good solid meal, or a fine snack.
We don’t talk enough about what goes into that cauldron. History is not just one ingredient in the cauldron, but many. Think of cooking as an interpretative act. Choose ingredients, some fresh, some from the back of the cupboard. Choose how to chop them, how to cook them, how long to cook them, and everything else right to the moment the food is on the table in front of us, the consumers. That’s what writers do.
Let’s look at what a couple of writers interpret what they do with history, from my interviews.
Chaz Brenchley explained “meeting Tolkien had ruined my writing life: I'd always wanted to write fantasy, but I spent my teenage writing bad Tolkien and then swore one of those great adolescent oaths that I would write no more fantasy until I had an original idea. Twenty years later, the postman delivered it, in the form of a brochure advertising a reprint of Stephen Runciman's history of the Crusades. People in exile from their own culture, at war on all their borders, at war between themselves, magic and mysticism and myth all around them”. Brenchley’s Outremer series was triggered by a specific emotional reaction to a particular moment in history.
Australian writer Dave Luckett was more pragmatic. He said, ‘the setting is a marker for a recognisable genre, and that in turn allows me to work with a set of conventions and reader expectations’. Except that Dave already had the emotional links and the knowledge from an undergraduate degree in Medieval Studies.
Most writers who use the Middle Ages in speculative fiction use it for craft reasons, with intellectual background added judiciously. Their work is read by the historians I mix with because mostly, it’s not seen as the Middle Ages. It’s seen as fantasy. Most historical fiction writers use reasons closer to those of historians to explain their writing and the way they research novels is somewhat closer to the way historians research. Kate Forsyth is a good example of this. This makes it harder for historians to read, because we can’t say to ourselves “It’s intended to be fantasy. It can't possibly be real.”
Franco-Australian fantasy author Sophie Masson says ‘I love the Middle Ages because they’re so full of fantastic stories, and peopled with such amazing and individualistic characters. I love the contrasts of the Middle Ages –the frankness, humour, passion, beauty and earthiness combined with spirituality, violence, craziness and chaos.’
Sophie’s statement is the most typical one of professional writers, and reflects what Chaz said. The writer’s relationship with the subject of the novel matters to both writer and reader.
The history of historians is a complex dynamic, a discourse, a set of never-ending conversations. History for historians is an interpretative bridge and history for novelists is whatever we need to make the story work, whether it’s drawn from the history of historians or if it’s invented because sources are hard to find and time is short.
There are some important things that writers have to take into account when bringing history into their fiction.
First, M. K. Tod’s 2018 Historical Fiction Survey https://awriterofhistory.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/2018-reader-survey-report.pdf made it very clear that readers choose history in their fiction by subject matter and genre. Fantasy and science fiction readers mostly don’t want historical fiction – they want books that confirm to their ideas of subject and are fantasy or science fiction. The historian's Middle Ages is way less important for most readers, then, than what novels tell us about the Middle Ages. This is another of the reasons that Willis is a best seller for The Doomsday Book and I never was for Langue[dot]doc 1305. I don’t meet wider reader expectations, and I can’t because I addressed the expectations of Medievalists in my novel. It’s not the past novelists bring to life, it’s what we tell ourselves ought to be the past.
How we tell the stories is also important.
Every novel has a built world. Where we don’t consciously and carefully construct our world, we draw on things we already know, or think we know. We introduce elements of diaculture, shared cultural knowledge that we think the readers will enjoy or that will help our story along.
Even when we write history into our fiction with great care, the history is often going to be subsumed by the other things we bring into our built world, ranging from tropes, stereotypes, popular assumptions, to stuff from our lived experience. This is one reason why Medieval fantasy novels used to contain so much stew. It’s why some novels set in London contain much rain. Dan Abnett’s Triumff does, and so does the opening of my own The Green Children Help Out. In both cases, it’s a way of showing place that’s part of the way readers expect see the place.
Where a trope, stereotype, popular assumption or lived experience is easy to hand, it can replace what we know historically about a place or time. For example, 17th century Jewish life is mostly missing from Naomi Novik’s Spinning Silver: she uses her own understanding to create the story.
What we ourselves have lived through, from what we eat and what we learn, to how we walk down the street, what we dream of, what we complain about, what we remember, these create our personal historical experience. Only a tiny, tiny number of people in the world share most of our personal experiences. Unless we research it and question it, however, the world view we carry every day developed through these experiences is the world view we carry into our fiction. This is why so many novels in English have a Christian underpinning to their world view even when they’re written by atheists.
To make it worse, not all Christianity is the same. The current kerfuffle about whether Tolkien created a Christian world or not changes in nature according to whether you’re looking at the built world in his fiction, or his private life. There is overlap. There is always overlap. Our personal experience of history is a deep part of our culture. So many US friends of mine identify major events by what they were doing at the time of that major event. These remembered moments are very handy for fiction writers, because they give moments of shared understanding that help the novel along. This element of US culture reaches into novels written outside the US.
One of the best examples in English literature of a writer demonstrating how experience translates into history is, of course in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. That book is brilliant. A contrasting one is Franz Kafka’s The Castle. They both articulate horrendous everyday experiences and translate them into fiction using history. Readers get entirely different messages from the work of both writers, depending on how they themselves can translate historical knowledge and lived experience into the world of the story. For some readers, the history isn’t visible in Kafka. Others describe it as the Jewish Narnia. For still others, it is fable-like and unreal.
There is no single correct interpretation. Experience translated into fiction is about relationships between the writer and their writing, between the writing and the reader.
What we think we know about the past, what we share with other people, is a big source of emotion in fiction... and of bias. That bias can become the story. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo's Dream paints Galileo as the Great Man in a Great Moment, that is so much part of what most people think history is. It’s the application of a particular cultural interpretation to history.
Without Robin Hood and Arthur and Troy as wishes for what history contained, our novels would be much poorer. More historically accurate, but not nearly as much fun. If you want a fun comparison of different cultural interpretations and their effect on the history in a novel, compare the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer with Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.
What is most important for any approach to history in fiction, however, is credibility: a reader’s capacity to trust the story triumphs. Connie Willis’ ‘facts’ in The Doomsday Book are actually tidbits that enable the reader to trust that the history is credible, because many readers believe that history is full of facts, because, to be honest, school history is full of facts. Verisimilitude is another thing that can convey credibility: this thing is depicted in a way that is real-seeming to the reader. Claire G Coleman creates a science fictional future in Terra Nullius and draws her verisimilitude from Australian history. Both facts and verisimilitude rest very heavily on the reader’s background, rather than on the history of a place or time.
All novelists make decisions relating to their work. We’ve talked about some of them, but let me add two more.
“Do I reinforce the reality of the past, through using writing techniques that help the reader situate themselves in the time of the novel?” The choices in writing techniques usually relate to the genre of the novel, because so much of the marketing is done through genre. The genre signals push the reader just as choosing a genre pushes the writer into how probable their history has to be, how much telling detail they need, and how to make the story credible. Language, clothes, mapping a submarine in Peter Dickinson’s Emma Tupper’s Diary, period illustrations in Jack Finney’s Time and Again – there are many techniques. Harry Turtledove uses telling detail spectacularly in the opening of The Guns of the South and Joan Aiken fills her fiction with grime and doom to bring her readers into her version of the Industrial Revolution.
Credibility is critical. If a reader can’t see the story as possible, then they don’t accept the story. Credibility is, however, a shifty thing. Historical fiction requires a sense of ‘this history is real’ so the writer needs a closer acquaintance with the history of historians. Every single writer in the History Girls (except maybe me) is an excellent example as this.
The more formulaic a genre is – and here I’m thinking of quest adventures, romance, and mystery – the more historical detail shores up the formula rather than working independently of it. The ultimate formulaic sub-genres in this respect are those that are represented by Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and much fantasy that claims a Medieval backdrop.
The bottom line is that novels are not one-size-fits-all and that history in novels reflect the nature of a given novel. All novels are interpretive acts, and that the nature of the interpretation rests on the nature of the act. The form of the story, the content, and even the writing style affect how history is depicted.
This is an edited and abbreviated version of a talk I gave at Balticon, in May 2022. If you’d like the complete version, ask here: https://gillianpolack.com/contact-me/