Writing historical fiction involves finding the story in history. This maybe an oversimplified statement considering the author must tell the story within the context of a particular historical time and/or place. In an article in the Allan Review, Joanne Brown quotes Kathryn Lasky who stated, “Some writers have addressed this problem by writing …keyhole history” (2). This means writers present the events through the perspective of ordinary characters who live in unusual historical times. To this, the author must contend with various important dynamics to create authenticity. Three of these include language, setting, and balancing fact versus fiction to ensure the story is believable.
Language used in a historical fiction novel must not only be true to the character speaking, but also must accurately reflect the period and place. Ruta Sepetys, in her novel Between Shades of Gray, shows how powerful the right word can be. She uses davai as a colloquial word inferring many things like “come on,” or “let’s go.” It can also mean to give. By using this famili
ar word, she gives authenticity to place and time. In addition, only the soldiers use “davao” in their dialogue. The word begins with a hard sounding consonant, “d.” The phonetics of the word mirrors the characteristics of the tough and cruel soldiers. Sepetys uses the term frequently at the beginning (13) (24) (25) (26), but once she’s grounded the reader in time and place, she uses it less as the story progresses (170).
Language helps create the setting. This can be done as simply as using one particular word as Ruta Sepetys does in Between Shades of Gray. When an author invites a reader to peek through the keyhole, the vocabulary the reader hears must be authentic to the nature of the character and the historical setting and time.
What about historical fact vs. fiction?
Balancing fact against the fiction is something every author must do if writing historical fiction. How does a writer not lose the momentum of the story to stop and explain things? The answer is that writers are not historians, they write fiction. History and the specific details are important, but they do not the trump story.
Fran Cannon Slayton states the following in the “Forward” of When the Whistle Blows, “Fiction has been described as ‘the lie that tells the truth. Many facts and much of the regional history in this book…are true events, although I have rearranged them at times to serve story over fact.”
History becomes another apparatus in the novelist toolbox because past events give birth to a story “that points to an even greater truth” (Slayton). Ruta Sepetys states in Beyond Shades of Gray, “Things aren’t always black or white. Sometimes the truth lies somewhere in the middle, between shades of gray” (352). It is this truth that writers must look for in their historical interpretation when writing their stories. Are there rules they can follow? In a conversation with Jerry Spinelli at the end of Milkweed, he responds by saying, “For me, there are many little rules, all superseded by one Golden Rule: Write what you care about” (4).
Writing historical fiction still requires the writer to develop all the usual skills involved in creating a superb novel, but it also requires extensive research. The author must not only know the details, he must feel like he’s lived the details. Once his familiarity has reached that level, then he must set the history aside and tell the story that he cares about. To do that, the author must peek through the keyhole and interpret the history as it relates to the characters and the story. It is those images that will affect the reader the most and make the novel and the historic elements unforgettable.