Dawn Colclasure's Blog

Author and poet Dawn Colclasure

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Giving historical fiction a chance

This morning, after reading a review of a novel, I was so taken with the writing (and, I'll admit, the story itself sounded pretty good) that I immediately headed on over to Amazon.com and added the book to my Wish list. But after I did that, I stopped, sat still in the desk chair, and asked myself, Did I just add an historical novel to my Wish list? You see, I used to be against reading historical novels.

As a history buff, it always bothered me when people got facts about history wrong. And when you combine fiction with history...well, a whole lot of things can go wrong!

For example, characters in a story that never actually existed. With one historical novel I reviewed, I learned that one character in the story was not alive at the time of the major character's story. I also learned that one character in the TV show Little House on the Prairie, a series based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, never existed (he was the creation of the late actor Michael Landon).

Another thing that always bothered me about historical fiction is that authors tended to change history with their stories. This didn't happen, that happened instead!

Still, it's that whole "this happened instead" idea that can make a reader think. So many people wish certain events in history never happened. Some authors of historical fiction have decided to run with that and wrote about what could have been.

One historical novel that fits this example is Forward to Camelot by Susan Sloate and Kevin Finn. What if the Kennedy assassination never happened? The authors took this question and turned it into a novel. I liked their idea, but it doesn't change the reality we live with after we put the book down.
Still, it's enough to make us ask, "What if?" And really think.

The "what if?" question is probably what compels novelists to write their stories in the first place. What if this happened instead of that? Or, what if something people suspect about an historical figure is true? What if there was a shocking secret attached to a major historical event that people never knew about?

And what if historical figures were not who we thought they were?

I have read a few historical novels. I have enjoyed every one of them. Besides Forward to Camelot, I have also read Friedrich by Hans Peter Richter, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne, Valeria's Cross by Kathi Macias and Susan Wales, The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon and Roots by Alex Haley. All good books, too.

So since I have enjoyed these novels, I have to wonder why I was ever against reading historical novels before. Used to be I'd see that a novel fell under "historical novel," and I'd pass on it without even reading what it's about. Nowadays, however, I'm willing to take a look.

Because it's not so much the history that these books are about, but the story.



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