Hi friends! Wonderful advice today from author Gina L. Mulligan on balancing fiction and fact in historical novels. It’s something I think about as I read historical fiction, or even novels with historical threads or bits mixed in.
If you’ve written historical women’s fiction, how did did you balance fact with fiction? Have you thought about incorporating historical bits into your work? I have, and it’s daunting! Of course, I love a challenge and that makes me want to do it even more. (Who am I kidding, I’ve already begun doing it for novel #4).
Please welcome Gina L. Mulligan to WFW, and share your thoughts in the comments!
The Historical Novel; Balancing Fiction with Fact
by Gina L. Mulligan
Mark Twain said, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” As an author of historical fiction, I’m often asked about the decision making process behind how much actual history to include in the historical novel. Where is the imaginary line between truth and creating an authentic fiction? This is the same question that haunts every historical fiction author I know. We want our stories to reliably represent an epoch or specific event, and yet at the same time fiction needs the freedom of imagination and reinvention. That’s what makes historical novels fun to read, and write. So after many years or researching, writing, editing, and more editing, I’ve developed a system to help balance fiction with fact.
How I find an idea for a novel influences where I start. Often a story idea is sparked while doing research for another project; stumbling upon some fascinating kernel that makes me stop and wonder. That’s a good first sign. If unfamiliar with the era, I read a bit and get a general feel for the time period. Google is great as long as I don’t go down the rathole and never get to writing. When I work on something familiar to my current area of focus, The Gilded Age, I outline the plot and story points and complete a rough first draft without doing much research at all. This is where I get to play. When unsure about a point of history, I put in a placeholder and keep going.
With a first draft ready, I then hit the books. I find library reference books, old newspapers, and non-fiction research on specific subjects, like period dress or politics of the day, are most useful. And I love reading books written in the era. If Henry James mentions a sea-fairing cap with big ear lappets then so can I.
With a healthy list of historical information created ─ that usually includes quotes, important figures and events, unique goods of the day, and food choices ─ I select the elements that I definitely want to include. This is either because it’s absolutely relevant to the story or just too fascinating to leave out. I again go through the novel and add in the particulars I’ve chosen. Plus, when I feel the story needs more depth to enhance the realism, I have my hit list of details at the ready. I admit I have a fondness for lyrical era terms that sometimes gets me into trouble.
With my history in place I tackle another round of edits, and that’s when something funny happens. I take back out many of the historical references I just added in. Other authors I know do the same. Too many facts can slow the pace and burden a reader. Fiction is what makes every novel unique; which means enthralling trivia can’t overshadow or interfere with the story. All the research, however, is still essential. Readers rely on the author as an expert on the subject, whether or not every juicy morsel is on the page.
There are a few rules authors must follow. Readers expect authors to keep true to the big stuff like major events and inventions that are appropriate. No toasters in 1888. For safety, I also avoid words that are old but sound modern. Who knew that the term “unfriend” was first noted in the late 13th century and used in the 19th century.
In the end, I strive to keep my historical novels believable enough to draw the reader into a new world, take them on a compelling journey, and leave them with a fresh perspective and a few new facts. If I can do that, then the balance is just right
Gina L. Mulligan is the author of Remember the Ladies, a historical fiction about women’s suffrage in America. She began her writing career over twenty years ago as a freelance journalist for national magazines. Her short stories are in included in the anthologies Tudor Close: A Collection of Mystery Stories and Not Your Mother’s Book . . . on Dogs, and were performed at Stories on Stage Sacramento. She has won awards from the Abilene Writers Guild, San Francisco LitQuake, and the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition.
After her own diagnosis, Gina founded Girls Love Mail, a charity that collects handwritten letters of encouragement for women with breast cancer. She was honored for her charitable work on the nationally syndicated television talk show The Steve Harvey Show.