Historical Fiction Isn't History…It's Better
by Kiersten Hallie Krum
I’m on vacation this week, which for me means attending New York City Comic Con with Entertainment Weekly while shepherding my sister’s first visit home from Arizona in three years and, later this week, helping my New Jersey Romance Writers chapter run our Put Your Heart in a Book annual regional conference.
Basically, I go to the day job to rest.
This week, we’re celebrating our own Liz Everly’s new release Tempting Will McGlashen by looking at bits of Revolutionary War era. I confess, I’m not a big fan of the era, or of American history in general though I infuse it with all relative importance. As a lover and student of Medieval European history, American history still feels so…young.
Fantastical as it is, Sleepy Hollow has made Revolutionary War history fun and interesting again. There’s a lot to love there that gets lost in the high school required reading of tea tax and winters in Jockey Hollow. High-stakes, big risks, bloody battles, split families, patriots, traitors, passionate arguments on the nature of and sacrifices for liberty and freedom. Watching Ichabod’s enlarged sense of insult as he viciously debunks the historical myths that have grown up and around such things as Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride is as entertaining as his lovelorn chats with Yolanda the North Star operator. (Fist bump, Yolanda.)
I know a brilliant history and religion professor who, when we were in undergrad together, told me historical fiction inaccurately dramatizes history. Well, yes, given that most of the characters in the novel aren’t real, hence why it’s called “fiction”. And sure, authors have been known to take liberties with historical events and people for the purpose of drama, but the good ones notate when and why they’ve done so. No harm, no foul.
Contrary to my friend’s learned feelings and those of many history academics who share his opinion, I love historical fiction. I think it takes what can be the tired and boring listing of events and dates and infuses it with relatable characters from whose points-of-view we can once again internalize what might otherwise come off as more than a little emotionally removed.
Through historical fiction, we can experience the internal conflicts Henry V may have felt on the eve of battle or the desperation and fear of the Jacobite mad rush onto the field at Culloden (you had to know I’d work Outlander in here somehow). It humanizes history in a way textbooks and tomes miss with regurgitation. It’s easy to think that the men and women of the Revolutionary War were all about the debates of the Continental Congress and the somewhat farcical images we have of The Boston Tea Party. In truth, they were rebels of limited means and numbers going up against the Great British Empire, courageous men and women turning their backs on centuries of English rule for the hope of something better for themselves and their children. In short, they were bad ass. Historical fiction helps bring these emotional truths to the fore; historical romance fiction weaves in the love elements as well. The conflict that arises when the love of one’s life is risking his or her own for a higher calling…or even is on the other side of the revolutionary divide.
To be sure, few things are as exemplary of the dangerous ways actual history can become historical fiction than today’s observance of Columbus Day as a national holiday. Many business no longer observe the holiday despite the inconvenience of post offices and bank closures. But it yet remains part of the national lexicon. John Oliver took the matter to hand last week in his hilarious “How Is This Still a Thing?” segment on Last Week Tonight. As I can in no way do it better, I invite you all to take a look for yourselves.
Check out Liz Everly’s take on historical romance in Tempting Will McGlashen, now available for pre-order. And follow Lady Smut where real-life is much too crazy to be mere fiction.