October 13, 2014

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.

Click to pre-order!
Click to pre-order!

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.

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  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    Who you calling ‘fiction’ writer? From what I can tell most historians have been writing their OWN fiction for as long as we’ve had such a thing. Even way back in the mediaeval times you love there were some writers who were very popular historical chronicles making stuff up left, right, and center. I think we’re just more honest about it.

    Anything or anoyone that gets history to come alive and makes us to see it in all it’s three-d complexity, vs. the pat easy narratives of (mostly fictional) pap we were fed in school gets a thumb’s up from me.

    But hey, I used to get paid to go to schools as a historical character and interact. Those kids would come alive like you poked them with 500 volts. Did you know more people died of diarrhea than wounds in the Civil War? They were agog. Did you know putting maggots in the wounds *helped* them not to get infected? Who knew history was so amazing suited to the gory gross interests of the nine year old set?

    Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    I’m a big fan of historical fiction. Sure it can overly dramatic – and sometimes inaccurate – but (for example) how many people can say they know a whole lot more about Anne Boleyn and her sister, Mary, now than they did before reading The Other Boleyn Girl? You’ve got to read historical fiction while bearing in mind the author’s imaginings on certain points, but often the crux of the history is correct. Anne Boleyn was indeed Henry’s second wife, she was the source of upheaval between the church of England and Rome, and she did in fact end up getting beheaded. Many people knew nothing of this before reading that book, and it’s just one of many examples where history is kept alive through historical fiction.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
  • Post authorLiz Everly

    I think writing historical fiction well is definitely extremely difficult. You’ve got to strike just the right tone with language, for example, where you don’t want to annoy your modern reader, yet you want to give a flavor of how they spoke. I think that’s true with the historical facts, as well. You’ve got to write from a place of knowing–but not beat your read over the head with it. Great post!

    Reply to Liz Everly

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