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Authors often use real historical eras, events, and people to shape their fictional stories.

In this lesson, we will explore how authors use and change historical accounts to fit their needs when writing stories.

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Historical Fiction

When you read historical fiction, you are not meant to accept all of the details about time and place as factual information. You need to approach a historical novel, for example, the way you would any other piece of fiction: knowing that it is not meant to be true.

Depending on the genre of fiction, there will probably be elements of truth in it. Perhaps one character is a recognized person from history, or even a contemporary figure. Or perhaps the author mentions real places, especially if the story is set in a well-known city. Even in science fiction and fantasy, there will be elements of philosophical or thematic truth. Think of the message contained in the movie Avatar for example: fighting to protect the natural world.

Thematic Truth
Avatar Themes

Historical fiction, however, is a bit different.

If the setting, which you will remember incorporates both place and time, is a recognizable place on this earth at a time that has been studied, then the author has the added job of making that setting believable. However, this does not mean that every detail must be included. Then the story would read more like a history text and less like an enjoyable narrative.

What it does mean is that what is included is relatively accurate. Unless the author means to delve into alternative history fiction (proposing how the world would be if history were changed), he or she cannot write about the American Civil War and have the Southern states win.

Civil War Soldiers
Civil War Soldiers

Changes to Historical Truth

You have probably heard the expression, ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ It may seem odd, but sometimes the actual facts of a historical place, character or event just simply won’t work in a fictional narrative. There are elements of fiction, like conflict and plot, that need to be planned and controlled by the author. Real life, however, cannot be controlled in the same way.

So sometimes the author makes minor changes to fit the story together smoothly.Here is an example. Arthur Miller’s famous play about the Salem Witch Trials, The Crucible, is set in 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts.

There are many records of what actually happened during the events of the trials, but Miller chose to change some of the facts for the sake of dramatic value in his play. Dramatic value refers to how effective the play is to read or watch on the stage. Abigail Williams, the young girl who is portrayed as the root of most of the tragedy, was actually 11 or 12 years old in 1692. Miller changed her age to 17, which makes the back story of Abigail’s affair with John Proctor more plausible.

Proctor himself was 60 years old in 1692, according to historical records, but portrayed as a much younger man in the play for the same reason.

Salem Witch Trials
witch trials

Point of View

This is probably the element of fiction that makes the most difference in historical fiction. Historical events are witnessed by many people, and as a reader, it’s important to remember that each person may have a slightly different account of what happened.If the story is told in first person with the protagonist as narrator, the reader will see the historical setting as that character does. That character, like Tim in My Brother Sam is Dead, may only have access to certain information. Tim Meeker is a child, and children in Colonial America were expected to be seen and not heard.

No one shares important information with Tim, and the reader only knows what Tim knows, as he knows it. Large events in history, like the American Revolution, become extremely personal events in this type of novel. Actual historical figures like Benedict Arnold are included in the story, but the story is Tim’s to share with the reader.

Revolutionary War Flag
Revolutionary War flag

Another example of the importance of point of view in historical fiction is Margaret Mitchell’s famous story of the American Civil War, Gone with the Wind. The story is told in third person, probably because Mitchell wanted to educate the reader about details of that time and place, while also telling a story.

This intent is also why Mitchell did thorough research to provide accurate historical details. Yet Scarlett O’Hara is obviously a protagonist in this story, as we follow her experiences through the years during and after the war. The reader sees everything that occurs through Scarlett’s eyes: nursing the wounded soldiers, fleeing the burning of Atlanta, struggling to survive after the war is over, and beginning to rebuild the South. Of course, there are many other ways to view this historical time period, through many other sets of eyes. But when you read Gone with the Wind, it is Scarlett’s story, and we follow the events as she does.

Atlanta in 1864
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