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

Historical Perspective: Appealing to Modern Readers

Cryssa Bazos and I met while attending a writer’s workshop in Toronto several years ago. We stayed in touch, occasionally checking in with one another on writing related developments while offering encouragement and empathy as needed. I’m delighted to host Cryssa whose debut novel – Traitor’s Knot – is receiving great reviews. Over to you, Cryssa.

Historical Perspective: Appealing to Modern Readers by Cryssa Bazos

In a work of fiction, you often find the following disclaimer included in the front matter: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons is purely coincidental.” Historical fiction should include an additional notice to reader: “The opinions expressed by the characters do not reflect the opinions of the author.”

People of the past are both the same and uniquely different than our contemporaries. From a physical and behavioural perspective, we are still driven by primal needs: to love, to survive, to connect with one another, and to have enough resources to thrive. But we are also products of our culture, which is directly shaped by time and place. The best works of historical fiction delve deep into the sensibilities of the past and give the reader a taste of what it was like to live in that age. We think of balancing dialogue—few modern readers would care for authentic 17th century speech in a novel, but the delicate part is to balance the need for historical authenticity in how people behaved while appealing to the modern reader.

19th century French novelist Alexandre Dumas has had his novels translated into film for decades. Modern filmmakers never seem to tire of reinventing his stories for modern audiences. The Man in the Iron Mask is one of his most famous works, second only to the Three Musketeers, and is the final instalment of the adventures of D’Artagnan, who is now a captain of the King’s Musketeers and weighed down by his duties. In this novel, the legendary and unshakeable friendship between the musketeers is tested. D’Artagnan has to decide between honouring his pledge to serve the king, and his time-honoured pledge of friendship to his friends who are now working against the King. A difficult choice for most characters, but for D’Artagnan, whose entire sense of worth is wrapped up in his honour, a particularly impossible dilemma. This proud Gascon would gladly choose the fires of the underworld over having to forfeit his honour.

Yet in today’s world, concepts of honour and duty seem to be an archaic and old-fashioned concept. How much are we guided by these concepts today? On the whole, we make decisions based on convenience; change our minds to suit our needs and our own gratification. Does modern society today understand the implacable nature of D’Artagnan’s choice? The filmmakers of the most recent version of The Man in the Iron Mask (released in 2000), must not have believed we were capable of understanding this choice so they changed the screenplay. D’Artagnan needed a “stronger” reason to stick with the snivelling fickle king he served so a liaison was conjured between our hero and the Queen of France, one that resulted in a secret issue (this same King). That was now the explanation for D’Artagnan supporting the King instead of his honour.

This change had the effect of diminishing the iconic character of D’Artagnan and downplaying the essential element of his nature. More importantly, audiences are robbed of a glimpse of the past, when one’s word and pledge meant something. The original story had allowed us to experience life from a different lens.

Fortunately, historical fiction authors are more devoted to historical accuracy than Hollywood, but does that mean that we are not tempted to insert modern sensibilities into our work?

Modern readers want to see female empowerment. They expect a heroine who isn’t a walking doormat. Yet, most women in the past were restricted by societal norms. There were of course exceptions, like Eleanor of Aquitaine who had power in her own right (and yet she was still imprisoned by her husband). But not every woman we write about is a queen or lived in an era where women did have some rights. My personal interest is in the everyday woman, the one who doesn’t wear a crown on her head.

How do you present a heroine with enough agency to appeal to a modern reader yet portray her true for her time?

One of the challenges I initially faced with my heroine in Traitor’s Knot, Elizabeth Seton, was to make her true to the times without making her passive. It was much easier with her counterpart, James Hart, who I could always send off to rout the enemy with a horse and doglock pistol. But Elizabeth had to be a product of her times. An unmarried woman could not live alone, and she’d either have to get married or attach herself to a relative’s household as an unpaid servant.

How to do it? I once posed this conundrum to bestselling historical fiction author, Barbara Kyle, and her advice was to show my character making choices and taking initiative, even if it was only to take up the quill to write a letter to a distant aunt requesting that she take her in. With that element unlocked, I found other ways to make Elizabeth active and give her agency.

A heroine can be grounded in her time and still be strong. Empowerment may be a modern concept, but personal strength is timeless. There is strength in keeping a family together during war, to do one’s part during times of occupation to survive and help others survive, in other words, to make difficult choices in difficult times.

Character is the bridge to the distant past. Exploring the nature of a character from the past, whether fictional or historical, requires embracing what makes them different, even if that means showing how their perspective differs from how we think today. It’s only through balancing this with the commonality of human nature that we can appeal to modern audiences.

Many thanks, Cryssa. I’m sure readers will be intrigued with your insights on the delicate balancing act facing those who write historical fiction. PS – love your notice to the reader!

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos – England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I. Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself. Traitor’s Knot is a sweeping tale of love and conflicted loyalties set against the turmoil of the English Civil War.


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