Guide to Historical Fiction


Why do people write? Why do they tell stories, and why do other people like to read them? There are lots of reasons, but I’ve come to believe that one of the main ones is that stories help us make sense of the world. Life is messy and chaotic; if there’s a point to it all, that point is sometimes very hard to see. We try to impose meaning on our lives by placing experience within a narrative frame. We see our lives as stories—there are heroes (usually us!) and villains (those jerks!), rising and falling action, unexpected twists and reversals of fortune. And if we’re lucky, there’s a big theme that gets developed as the story goes on.

Writing fiction is an extension of this, but with a big difference. The writer doesn’t just come up with the meaning of events: she comes up with the events themselves. Rather than interpreting a world, she is creating it. For her world, the writer is a god.

It’s no surprise then that people think about writing in religious terms. James Joyce invoked the ritual of communion and the miracle of transubstantiation: for him, the artist was “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of ever-living life.” Creation can be scary, as anyone who’s faced a blank page knows. It’s an awesome responsibility, but it’s also just awesome, a chance for all of us to experience divinity.

But not always. My most recent novel, Allegiance, is historical fiction. And historical fiction, I realized—not until after I’d committed to the project—is actually quite different. The author of historical fiction confronts a world already made. Things have happened. They can be minimized or expanded on; they can be reinterpreted and reimagined, but this is all detail work done on a canvas whose broad strokes have been sketched by someone else.

That’s a bummer in some ways. The author isn’t a god anymore. She doesn’t know everything about the world of her book because that world is only her words—she has to find it out through research. Allegiance is set largely in the Supreme Court during World War II. It’s the story of a young man finding his way through some of the conflicts of that era, most notably the detention of Japanese-Americans. And I as the author had to find my way through those conflicts too.

I read dozens of books about the Court, the war, the government, and the Japanese-Americans—books like Justice at War by Peter Irons, which tells the story of the struggles inside the Justice Department; like Free to Die for Their Country by Eric Muller, which tells the story of Japanese-Americans who were drafted from inside detention camps. And I realized that while my relationship to the world I was describing wasn’t that of an all-powerful creator, it was something else almost as good. I was creating a mystery plot, but at the same time I was solving a mystery. I was doing what my protagonist was doing, learning about the terrible things the government had done to keep him safe, learning about what makes us Americans and what allegiance to the Constitution really means. I was doing what readers do as they learn about the world of the books they read and place their own interpretations on what the author has written. And I was doing what we do in our everyday lives, as we try to make them into meaningful stories.

I’m glad I had that experience of finding meaning rather than just imposing it, of having to listen my sources to hear the stories they were trying to tell. Writing historical fiction probably isn’t the way to go if you want to be a god. But it turns out that it’s pretty good preparation for being human.

Published in The Strand Magazine