The Pros & Cons of Historical Fiction

by Regina Kenney

Ah, Historical Fiction. An oxymoron concept wrapped up in a delicious stretching of the truth, extrapolating, getting the general gist delightful read.

722749b3ff4503695d78b3971dc6ad05I always wonder about the writers of historical fiction. Whether they worry about getting facts right or whether it’s a throw caution to the wind, ‘this is FICTION remember’ and pick the parts they want to advance their narrative.

Whenever I get a book as a present, that reading goes to the top of the pile.

My last read and current read happen to both be historical fiction (And, come to think of it, I believe the first historical fictions I have ever read): The Ghost Hunters by Neil Spring and Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold (currently reading).

(Ironically, ‘The Ghost Hunters’ historical fiction includes Sir Arthur Cannon Doyle, and ‘Carter Beats The Devil’ is partially on Houdini – two actual rivals in their time.)

Both of these books were and have been fantastic.screen-shot-2016-09-14-at-9-08-58-am

But reading Ghost Hunters, I kept having the urge to look up the actual ghost story the book discusses.

I finally gave in about half way through the book and went down a rabbit hole of Wiki pages, documentaries, and commentaries on Harry Price and the Borley Rectory (famous haunting site in England).

Wow, was that a mistake.

Not only did I start getting confused about things I read online and what happened in the book, I also majorly spoiled a large plot point. Which brings me to…..

What I Love and Hate about Reading Historical Fiction….

What I Hate:

  • Urge to Wiki. It’s right there, literally at your fingertips. You can see what happens, how they die, if X marries X and so on. Couple of clicks to a spoiler alert. Now, this is true of all books – but there seems to be an extra urge to find ‘the real story’ when reading historical fiction
  • ‘Did this really happen?!’ Mind Bug. When I’m reading, I constantly wonder what bits are true and what bits are false. This distracts from the reading and pulls me out of the story.
  • Historic Confusion. Maybe you are smarter than me and are able to compartmentalize a ‘fiction book with historic characters’ and not recall it as fact. But I find myself now at parties saying, ‘Interestingly enough, Sir Arthur Cannon Doyle was ______’ then, pause, wait. No. No he wasn’t. Or maybe he was? I read that in a historical fiction book and have not Googled it for validity yet. Shit. I’m still talking. Just go with it and hope no one pulls out their smartphone.

What I Love:

  • Cliché, perhaps, but historical fiction does ‘make history alive.’ Through narrative, details, dialogue, scene description, a reader feels more connected with the story then through a straight-up historic text.
  • Makes you WANT to read the ‘real story.’ Upon my next bookstore outing, I will be picking up a copy of Houdini’s biography. That man sounds freaking fascinating.
  • Real-world connection. Hard to articulate, but the fact that these were actual people and semi-actual events makes the read more exciting. Sure, president Roosevelt might or might not have ‘blustered into the room, stammering about his secretary Martha who got the appointments mixed up,’ but Roosevelt was a real person and you are reading an author’s attempt to capture the man and the spirit of the time.

 

Ultimately, I have enjoyed reading these two books far more than the minor annoyances inherent in historical fiction. So I shall read on, possibly get my facts mixed up and give-in to spoiler internet perusing, and just enjoy the ‘ficiton-not-all-fiction’ stories.

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