The Power of Historical Fiction by Darrell Duthie

Darrell Duthie and I connected over WWI fiction – his and mine both involving the heroic deeds of the often overlooked Canadian soldiers serving in that war. Darrell offers insights into what historical fiction can do to illuminate history in ways that non-fiction can’t.

The Power of Historical Fiction by Darrell Duthie

For the historically minded, historical fiction is often viewed with scepticism, and the boundary between fiction and history is sometimes blurred. Yet historical fiction has the power to be far more insightful than nonfiction. Few, if any, history books are able to draw you into the world of the past in such a visceral way as good fiction can. To be carried into the past is to experience history, not simply read about it, and that gives it an impact that pure history so often lacks.

My own novel is set in the First World War, and anyone who is familiar with that war is almost certainly familiar with Erich Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front or, at the very least, the film of the same name. For all the truly excellent WW1 histories, none have been able to paint so vivid a picture in the minds of so many about the experiences of warfare on the Western Front, as that single book.

Through dialogue, descriptions of the weather, a character’s clothing, or even the smell in the air, novelists enliven history so as to make it real. They can tell us about personal relationships and emotions, and seemingly small, but crucial details that escape the historian focused on the “big picture”. No historical account can ever truly evoke the same depth of understanding that comes from a reader feeling like he or she was there. And that is the wonder of historical fiction.

Take one episode from the infamous bloody battle of Passchendaele in 1917. The historian might write: “After progressing 1700 yards on wet ground towards the Bellevue Spur, the 9th Australian Brigade’s advance was ultimately checked by fierce machine gun fire and a band of unmapped wire.” The novelist might write: “With a grunt he pulled his foot from the mud and stumbled on up the shallow slope of the Spur, crouching low as another concrete pillbox began spitting fire. To his side the cheery bloke from Perth went down. Through the smoke, tangled spirals of wire suddenly appeared. Damn, that wasn’t supposed to be there. ‘Pull back,’ roared the sergeant.’” One plainly states the facts, while the other invites the reader in to experience the battle. Which is more likely to leave a lasting impression? Do the plain facts or the fictionalized story better convey the essence of that fateful day?

The best authors of historical fiction ensure that they get their facts straight. It is, after-all, historical fiction, and that is more than just a story in the past with a few splashes of colour in which history is molded like so much clay to fit a narrative. Robert Harris – one of the masters of the genre – remarked that where the demands of a good story conflicted with the history, he willingly sacrificed the latter in favour of the former: a logical choice. But historical fiction without solid research is simply fiction, and Harris recognizes that too.

The challenge lies in trying to craft a tale which is both true to the past, and compelling reading. In my own novel, for example, I couldn’t very well have my worthy protagonist staring out over the parapet, on a specific rainy, wind-swept night, awaiting a trench raid, when the war diaries described the daily weather as fine, and put his division twenty kilometres from the front! What I could do – borrowing from history – was to have him sneaking across a snow covered No-Man’s-Land with a handful of others and a tube of ammonal explosive in a trench raid to capture German prisoners, hereby illustrating the changing nature of warfare in early 1918, the specific tactics of the Canadian Corps, and telling a true story at the same time.

Philip Kerr, author of the Berlin Noir historical detectives, once said that the little details – which brand of china his characters were eating on – was the key to authenticity, and he is surely right about that. The small touches, largely irrelevant and mostly ignored in any history book, are curiously invaluable in historical fiction. They too inform us about the past in a way that the broad, factual strokes cannot. They add context and detail, and further our understanding of how and why events happened as they did. However, it is ultimately the combination of well-researched facts, plus all the subtle techniques of fictional drama, which is unique to historical fiction. Together they can lift a novel beyond fiction and tell us things about the “truth” of history in a way that history alone can never do.

Many thanks, Darrell. I’m certain your readers will appreciate the lengths to which you’ve gone to create just the right blend of history and compelling fiction so they can learn, enjoy and feel like they were there.

Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War by Darrell Duthie

Fall 1917. The Western Front is in stalemate.

Captain Malcolm MacPhail of the Canadian Corps has been in the trenches for longer than he cares to remember. He’s just landed a new job on the intelligence staff, but if he thinks staying alive is going to become any easier, he’s sorely mistaken.

The rain is pelting down, the shells are flying and the dreaded battle for Passchendaele looms. Malcolm reckons matters can still get worse. Which proves to be an accurate assessment, especially as his unruly tongue has a habit of making enemies all on its own.

The Allies are fighting desperately to swing the tide of war, and Malcolm’s future hangs in the balance, so keeping his head down is simply not an option…

Malcolm MacPhail’s Great War is available from Amazon, Kobo, and select retailers.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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2 Responses

  1. “Few, if any, history books are able to draw you into the world of the past in such a visceral way as good fiction can.”

    Just to add a bit to your fine observations. Since at least the U.S. Civil War, photography has been able to draw in the viewer in a way parallel to great historical fiction. And photography also has the advantage of being a primary resource for the writer’s research. I think of the B&W image when the soldier is struck in the Spanish Civil War or the public self-immolation by the Buddhist monk during the Vietnam War. Very moving. And, of course, the muddy trenches in France! Thanks.

    1. How true that is. And I suppose you could also add film, or perhaps even music, in a few cases. When thinking of WW1 I often think of the iconic photo of four Canadian soldiers carrying a stretcher, knee-deep in the mud. There’s a good reason why historians add these pictures to their books, to add what their words cannot. Of course, the reader still can’t feel the glutinous mud sucking at boots, smell the stench of the lingering mustard gas, or hear the soldiers muttering behind! Thanks for the comment!

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