History in Fiction

Ibn Tulun Mosque Cairo
When does a novel based on history belong in the genre of historical fiction? What distinguishes it from the period piece or a work of historical fantasy?

Several decades ago, I happened across a 1983 Internet posting by Al-Wa’ez Hasan Nazar Ali. This document was a richly detailed history of the Fatimid Khalifate, complete with descriptions of Al Qahira (Cairo) of that period and the backgrounds of key individuals. At that time, I was considering a sequel to an existing eleventh-century manuscript I had written but not yet published. With such a detailed basis on which to write a new story, I set aside the first manuscript and began a second. Now it seems the first story might become a sequel to the second.

When composing fiction based on history there is a scale of authenticity to consider. At one end, it is pure fiction–the period piece–where nothing is based on fact. There are few if any historical characters. Places, people, social norms, dress, technology, and other aspects of the story are only loosely appropriate for the time. These stories are often about relationships and emotional conflicts, entertaining perhaps, but frequently with limited or little bearing on what really happened, to whom, and when.

At the other end of the scale is historical fiction.  To lay claim to that genre, the work must closely align to what actually happened as well as to when, how, and to whom it happened. Standards of dress, technology of the time, dates, events, place and social norms must all be accurately portrayed. Years of research by the author and intense fact-checking by the publisher are the rule rather than the exception–a formidable task for author and editors. Often an author may have only one such book in them.

Anna Lee Waldo’s Sacajawea exemplifies the true genre of historical fiction and the degree of effort required to create such a work. Undaunted, she wrote her book over ten years. After Avon Books accepted it, four more years passed while the editors had historians and anthropologists meticulously check every fact in the 1359-page novel published in 1978. Waldo said, “But I knew they wouldn’t find any mistakes. And I knew they couldn’t lose the manuscript–it was too big.” Sacajawea was the Shoshoni Woman who guided Lewis and Clark on their exploratory expedition from Missouri to the Oregon Coast from 1804 to 1806. In researching the book, Waldo and her husband followed the 3,000-mile route three times. Waldo’s journey into history began growing up in Whitefish, Montana, where she had Native-American classmate and searched the area for arrowheads and other artifacts. In 1964 she began writing the work that had long incubated in her imagination. While raising five children, She persistently wrote during the day when they were in school–a model of the dedication and discipline indispensable to produce significant historical fiction. The ninety-six-year-old author now lives in Great Falls, Montana.

The middle ground is historical fantasy. This does not entail magic or myth, but it does mean that the principal characters, the protagonist, and her allies are not likely to be real people. The extent to which the author holds to actual events, places, and people is a matter of choice. In my current work, which is yet untitled, I decided to portray real people and places as accurately as possible when my protagonist interacts with them while at the same time depicting customs, laws, and societal norms as close to what is documented or can be reasonable assumed from the historical evidence. My novel includes settings in Egypt, Anatolia, and Byzantium near the end of the eleventh century, a volatile period when Christendom and Islam were meeting head to toe. The historical characters have exceptional stories to tell. If a fictional character can interact with many or all of them over the course of the story, the reader gains an understanding of crucial turning points in history.

Looking backward, then, can become also looking forward. The catalyst for any fiction, and particularly of historical fiction, is to ponder the question of why events unfolded in the way they did in the first place and to envision, perhaps, better scenarios for the future. The writer’s vision and his mission are to open timeless windows for the reader.

Image: Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo, completed AD 876


Rod Rogers

Rod Rogers

Rod's fiction envisions intergalactic life, apocalyptic scenarios, and history, with great character development and with women assuming prominent roles.

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Rod Rogers
Rod Rogers

Rod's fiction envisions intergalactic life, apocalyptic scenarios, and history, with great character development and with women assuming prominent roles.

All Posts

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