Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How True is Historical Fiction?


My guest this week is Tom Isbell, author of Southern Cross, an exciting  tale of double agents, espionage, revenge, and murder set on the S.S. Southern Cross in pre-WWII.
Historical fiction blends the reality of history with the make-believe world of the characters and plot. How true to history should historical fiction be? I spend a good deal of time researching the timeline before I start writing a story. However, the historical part of the story shouldn’t overshadow the plot. The reader isn’t looking for a history lesson. Too much detail pulls the reader out of the story. A friend of mine once said, “It’s fiction, just make it up.” I don’t agree. In order for a novel to be believable, the bits and pieces of history woven into the story must also be believable, and above all correct.
I was well into writing my second novel, Icarus Plot, when I discovered that one third of the town had burned down during the time period of my story. People lost everything and were forced to live in army tents while the town rebuilt. The area was placed under martial law. All of this complicated my life as a writer, but I could not ignore the fire. It was part of the town’s history. I couldn’t change the timeline of the story since it flowed into my next book. After more research, I found some photographs of the fire and also determined the cause of the fire was unknown. This fact presented an opportunity to blend history with fiction while furthering the plot. I wrote two chapters into the book showing how the fire started and how it affected my characters. The fire became an integral part of the plot.
In another instance, I found myself writing a history lesson; showing how much I knew about the history surrounding the time. I chopped two thousand words from a story. The historical facts were interesting to me, but they were not furthering the plot. I would have lost the reader.
So, how true to history should historical fiction be? In the context of fiction, doses of historical fact should remain subtly in the background and not call attention to themselves.

About T. C. Isbell
Like many authors, I started writing in high school. In the sixties and seventies I wrote short stories and poems influenced by those turbulent times. During the eighties, I wrote articles for The Rodder's Bulletin, a monthly newspaper for car enthusiasts. Retirement has given me time to pursue my passion for writing. Southern Cross is the first in a series of historical thrillers set in the period just before the United States officially enters World War II.  It is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Icarus Plot, the second book in the series, is a work in progress.
I am a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and International Thriller Writers (ITW).



Lev Raphael said...

That's a really good point about the fire. research can sometimes knock you for a loop because you come across facts that seem to make your book more complicated. But patience can integrate those.
Thanks for sharing that insight!

T. C. Isbell said...

Thanks Lev, A tight plot and sound research are the keys to any good novel. Technical and historical facts help create a plausible story. If I had missed the fire during my research, most readers wouldn’t have known. However, devout readers of WW2 historical fiction might have.

Polly said...

Great post, Tom. Research can definitely change a story. I'm finding that even near present can become history. A book written in 2002, reedited for 2012 needs a thorough vetting because of cell phones and other technological equipment. Most of the time we don't even think of these things when updating a book. Who uses a flip phone other than a few of us dinosaurs. A book written in 2005 with a New Orleans setting and updated in 2012 needs a cleaning up of the Katrina mess. So is near history becoming past history? It's scary how fast things are changing.

T. C. Isbell said...

Thanks, Polly. How true. Readers have lived through recent history and know what they experienced. Events require closer scrutiny when fictionalizing something that happened five years ago compared to fifty years ago. A reader's preception of an event, as portrayed in the news media, must also be considered.

Ellis Vidler said...

Hi, Tom. Good post! I agree about the need for thorough research. I've just discovered I'm a technical dinosaur. In a critique group I learned about my MC's need for an aircard. Never heard of it, but now I'm researching.

The fire adds interest to your story. I have Southern Cross but haven't started it yet. I'm looking forward to it.

Linda Bonney Olin said...

Great points, Tom. I set my WIP in 1984 to jibe with an actual federal farm loan program that figures into the murder and mayhem. The beauty of that time period is that my heroine has to figure things out the old-fashioned way, instead of hopping onto her laptop for incriminating information and calling for help on her cell phone.
At first, I got so hung up in historical accuracy that I checked the locale's daily temperature, wind, and precipitation records for the dates in the book. Finally decided that that was going a little too far. :)
Anyway, I thought Southern Cross was an excellent blend of fact and fiction.

T. C. Isbell said...

Ellis, I hope you enjoy reading Southern Cross as much as I have enjoyed this blog.

Linda, It’s funny that you mention checking daily weather records for the locale and time period. I did that and more. I checked the phases of the moon, baseball scores, and addresses . . . but I’m a retired engineer. At the end chapter eight in Southern Cross , when Schulte asks the long distance operator for Murray Hill 5-9975 and the speaks to Rick, that’s the phone number for Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s apartment in I Love Lucy . Just a little fun to see if anyone catches it!