The responsibilities of the historical novelist


26 January 2024
Author Maria Frances discusses the need to balance creative imaginings with expectations of authenticity

There is an unspoken contract between a creative writer and her readers that comes into effect as soon as the reader opens a book. The reader asks to be immersed in another, fictional world, and is willing to invest time (and money) and to suspend a certain amount of disbelief. The author, in turn, promises to provide an engaging story with a believable plot, authentic setting and characters and, usually, a satisfying conclusion. Every genre has its own specific considerations in this regard, and historical fiction is no different.
Writing from the present about the past – that is, contemporary historical fiction – is something of a tightrope act. Both the writer and the reader are living in the here and now, and any story has to have a shared frame of reference to make sense. The responsibility of the historical novelist is to look back in time and to provide context for events that have already happened, while effortlessly merging authenticity with creative imaginings. But this can be easier said than done.
Take dialogue in a novel set in the 1800s, for example: Have you ever heard the term ‘nanty narking’? Is the protagonist feeling ‘enthusimuzzy’, or is the love interest guilty of ‘podsnappery’? As much as the word-nerd in me would delight in the comeback of these 19th-century terms into modern parlance, most of my readers would have absolutely no idea what the characters were talking about if I had them use such words. At the same time, a young gentleman at the court of Queen Victoria would unlikely have used phrases such as ‘See ya’, or ‘Got a minute?’ This would, at best, cause the reader to flinch from the page, and at worst, throw them out of the historical setting entirely. Consequently, a novel set in the past will invariably require the writer to adapt characters’ dialogue to contemporary readers’ understanding of language, rather than using historically accurate words. But at the same time, the writer must simultaneously create a genuine-sounding/looking/feeling world. I like to think of this as a reader’s expectation of authenticity: Show me a world that captures something essential about the past while framing it in a way I can relate to.
But historical fiction holds further challenges. Because past events are facts – for example, World War 2 took place between 1939 and 1945 – they can constrain a story, and every character, sub-plot and narrative arc must make sense within these constraints. My historical characters are limited, for example, in terms of how they travel, what information they have access to, how they communicate etc. All of this requires a great degree of inventiveness and also makes comprehensive research essential. And readers can be demanding when it comes to factual accuracy: If you take a look at online reviews of historical fiction, you are very likely to come across at least one 1-star review criticising the book because some minor historical detail is false or inaccurate.
But as limiting as historical facts can be in fiction, I like to think of them as providing anchors for a story. Writing historical fiction requires a very different kind of world-building as compared to fantasy or dystopian fiction. I can fall back on archives, memoirs or photographs, at let them inspire my imagination, freeing up creative space for storytelling.
This juxtaposition enables writers of historical fiction to do more than provide a reconstruction of a particular slice of history. For me, a good contemporary historical novel, one that captures the optimum balance between fact and fiction, is a kind of telescope through which to view the past. Such books seek to bring interesting characters to life – some real, some imagined – who might have been our grandmothers or great-grandfathers. As such, historical fiction can tell as yet untold stories and amplify voices of underrepresented populations. It can also help us make sense of deeper truths of human existence. For example, a large part of my novel Daughters of Warsaw is set in Poland during the early 1940s. We know, of course, that the war ended in 1945; my characters did not. For all they knew, the war might last another ten years, or be over in months. This has a huge psychological impact on everything they do and say, and I, as the writer, have to creatively imagine their feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Here, then, I have the opportunity to come full-circle to the present – how must it feel to be living through war in Ukraine, or the Middle East (to name but two)? This further begs the question of whether human experience is universal across time and space. I would argue that very often, it is. And as such, I try to write historical fiction that has something meaningful to say, something that a present-day reader can use with which to make better sense of what we are witnessing now.
It can be immensely difficult to get the balance right in historical fiction. Why, then, go to the trouble at all? For my part, I believe that the balance lies in the realisation that the divergence between historical fact and historical fiction presents great opportunities. When facts are shaped into narrative, they can engage readers in a wholly new way with which to view the past, thereby providing a unique – and hopefully insightful – understanding of history.

Daughters of Warsaw by Maria Francis is published by Avon, £9.99

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Read more on how to write credible historical fiction from novelist Alec Marsh