Musings on History and Historical Fiction

Is history a cold collection of facts that only a historian could love–until a novelist or screenwriter comes along and picks up those facts, uses them for kindling,  and gets a good blaze going so that everyone else is drawn close?

I came across two pieces this week–one an interview with  Michael Hirst in Mediabistro, and the other blog post by Sheila Bali on the relationship between historical fiction and history

Both shed a light on how history comes to us and what we can do with it.

Michael Hirst first, and if you can’t get to the interview . . . sorry. Mediabistro is sometimes a bit unwelcoming, but I can’t do anything about that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter years in British academia, Hirst left and wrote the screenplay to Elizabeth (the film starring Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen). He is both writer and executive producer of the series The Tudors and the new series Vikings for the History Channel

He finds historical characters are interesting because they’re human beings. Passion and knowledge are important–very important–but ” it’s ultimately not the procedure that makes the show work — it’s the people. The more real they are, the better.”

Hirst read everything he could on the Vikings for his new project, which of course was necessary, but the best  anecdote he found was the very personal reaction of an Arab trader who encountered the Vikings and wrote about how they combed their hair, and how they shared one big bowl. Literally, shared the water in this big bowl: “they spit into it, they clear their throat into it.” That eye-witnessed event made it into Episode 2 of Vikings.

“There is great value . . . in all these little footnotes and anecdotes, little things, human details that often don’t interest historians but interest me.”

Sheila Bali is writing a book, Shattered Tears for My Homeland, about her family’s escape from Hungary during the 1956 revolution. In books, she loves the people, the characters too: “They tell us their story, and in this way they tell us about history.”

“If you gathered all the historians in the world and put them together in a hall, they would disagree on almost everything. History is generally scripted by the victors. Where go the spoils, so goes history.”

Agree 100%!  That’s why Death Speaker,  my novel of ancient Gaul during Caesar’s invasion, is written from the POV of the Gauls, not the Romans. (OK, I had to get a plug in there someplace, but it’s absolutely true. After a couple thousand years of history told from the winners’ perspective, let’s face it–we love hearing the alternate story. Or the subaltern story, if you like that sort of language.)

Bali says, “History scholars excavate facts from the past. They unearth precise dates, capture victories and losses in battles and wars, cite lives lost, redraw maps. They name rulers, despots, tyrants, heroes. . .


“But . . .  the historical novelist might illuminate a broader truth, a universal truth, as it was lived at a certain time in the past. The novelist writes the bigger scene, the scene of ordinary people, how they survived with everything stacked against them, and in that way the novelist takes the reader to the doorstep of history.”

I love her point. And I’ll add a little more.

I saw Professor Richard White of Stanford, one of the big names in the history of the Western US, being interviewed a dozen years ago. He described talking to an elderly relative about her life and some of the things she’d seen. Being a brilliant scholar, he realized that some of her memories couldn’t possibly be accurate–that events hadn’t happened when she said, or how she said. And it gave him pause.


He posed the question–sorry, I can’t quote it exactly because it was on BookTV, not in print–Who am I to tell this woman whether her memories are right or wrong? 

So when you get right down to it, yes, the facts are important. They frame the story, and the story wouldn’t exist outside of those facts.

But perception and memory vary with each of us. I think that gives a novelist incredible freedom to pull and play with events, to dig in and find the deeper meaning of our stories.

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2 Responses to Musings on History and Historical Fiction

  1. Nice article. As a historical fiction writer I completely agree. Back in my school days I thought history was boring, but it’s only taught that way. History is about passion and people achieving great things without our modern advantages. What could be more exciting than that?

  2. Pingback: Musings on History and Historical Fiction | timetowritenow

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