I’ve now written two books set in the past: Concord, which takes place in Massachusetts in the early 1840s, and my new novel from Delphinium, A Storm in the Stars, which takes place in England, France, Switzerland, and Italy between 1800 and 1825. While I don’t have a comprehensive theory of historical fiction, I’ve collected several observations and questions about fiction set in the past.
- For the most part, literary categories exist to help bookstores and libraries organize their books, publishers describe their books, and readers find the kind of books they like. Some categories seem to have rather firm identities and boundaries. Science fiction has communities of fans, awards, and a separate section in bookstores. Historical fiction has fuzzier boundaries and a less clear identity. Many stores don’t have a separate section for historical fiction. I tend to think of myself as the author of some novels that are set in the past rather than as a writer of something called “historical fiction.” From a writer’s perspective, fuzzy boundaries and imprecise identities are best.
- There seems to be little agreement about how distant from the present the action in a novel has to be before it’s considered “historical.” A bookstore I frequent has recently added a Historical Fiction section. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, set in the 1500s, is shelved there but Jennifer Egan’s novel, Manhattan Beach, set in the 1940s, is not. Perhaps—and I say this only partly in jest—historical fiction is fiction in which the characters wear peculiar clothes.
- As a novel ages, the question of whether it will be identified as a work of historical fiction becomes more complicated. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is set in the 1640s and was published in 1850. Despite the 200-year differential, I don’t believe many readers think of Hawthorne’s novel as an example of historical fiction. Maybe that’s because looked at from 2022, both 1640 and 1850 seem merely to be “a long time ago.” Consider also Tolstoy’s War and Peace (set 60 years before its publication), Scott’s Ivanhoe (set 600 years before its publication), and Mary Shelley’s Valperga (set 500 years before its publication). In ways I can’t fully explain, thinking of a book as historical fiction seems to involve a calculation based on three points in time: the reader’s, the author’s, and the setting of the action in the book.
4. Nearly all works of fiction are set in a particular place and time. Is fiction set in the distant past—a work set during the American Civil War, for example—different in some fundamental way from fiction set in the present? One response would be to say that since readers know the present better than they know the past, the writer of historical fiction has a responsibility to explain the setting more completely. But a writer who sets a contemporary story in a place that most readers won’t have firsthand knowledge of bears a similar burden of explanation. Maybe a more useful term would be “novels with unfamiliar settings.” In a way, that’s what the term “science fiction” denotes—a reader who opens a work of science fiction expects to be dislocated in time and place.
5. We’re living in what could be considered a golden era of fiction about notable historical figures. Maybe the most highly praised has been Hillary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” trilogy, about Thomas Cromwell, but there are also Colm Toibin’s The Master and The Magician, about Henry James and Thomas Mann respectively, Amy Bloom’s White Houses, about Eleanor Roosevelt and the journalist Lorena Hickock, and George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. What is it that’s causing writers to write about notable people from the past and readers to want to read such books? One theory I’ve heard is that as the writing of history has become more analytic and less narrative, fiction has stepped in the fill the gap. In my own case, I was so intrigued by Toibin’s The Master, that I found myself wondering if I could do something similar—not (I hope) because I lack imagination but because writers often find themselves conversing with or extending previous works of art. In my own mind, A Storm in the Stars is in conversation with Toibin’s The Master, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein¸ Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, and even Richard Holmes’ magnificent biography, Shelley: The Pursuit.
6. People tend to think that one of the distinguishing features of historical fiction is the amount of research required. This is true, but only to a point. If I decided to write a novel about campaign workers during the 2020 elections, I would have to do plenty of research because I’m not a campaign worker and know little of that world. By the same token, I could write a novel about the 1960s in Wyoming, the time and place in which I grew up, without doing much research at all. I do believe some writers of historical fiction rely on research a bit too much. While it’s important to avoid obvious gaffs, most readers care about character, plot, and language more than they do about historical details. As a reader, I’m unlikely to care if a character ties his shoe in a scene that takes place at a time before shoes with laces were common; yet, sometimes, while reading a novel set in the past, I feel that the writer’s pride in having gotten all the minuscule details right exceeds their pride in how convincingly they’ve portrayed a character’s inner life.
Some writers of historical fiction seem to be true history buffs. They find learning about and recreating people and events from the past endlessly fascinating. I don’t consider myself part of that group. Instead, I think I’m drawn to writing in his form because to find my voice, it helps me to have a good deal of distance from what I’m writing about. For me, writing in the first person about the present results in wooden sentences and lifeless paragraphs. Writing in the third person about people from two hundred years ago helps bring my words to life.