word craft


How the Past Comes into the Present

Hilary Man­tel, the late British author who wrote such out­stand­ing his­tor­i­cal fic­tion as the Wolf Hall tril­o­gy, is quot­ed as say­ing, “His­to­ry is not the past, it’s the method we have evolved of orga­niz­ing our igno­rance of the past.” 

That’s also an apt def­i­n­i­tion for his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, as it is the aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­pline of his­to­ry itself. The dif­fer­ence; the his­to­ri­an, at least we like to assume, is trained to search out the facts, data, and oth­er evi­dence to present a mean­ing­ful — and objec­tive — nar­ra­tive of past events.

The writer of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, while try­ing to hew to selec­tive facts, invents a per­son­al­ized account­ing for what hap­pened. It sug­gests real his­to­ry even though it isn’t. It’s also sub­jec­tive in its point of view. 

His­tor­i­cal fic­tion — which, in Eng­lish, seems to have begun with Sir Wal­ter Scott’s Waver­ly pub­lished in 1814 — takes many forms. Its authors fol­low facts in vary­ing degrees. Thus, my The But­ton War is based on a brief sto­ry my late father-in-law told me about his expe­ri­ence in World War One when he was a boy. Oth­er­wise, it is utter­ly fiction.

Gold Rush Girl, set in 1848 San Fran­cis­co, is as close a fac­tu­al ren­der­ing of Gold Rush San Fran­cis­co as I could cre­ate, based on my research. Ear­ly in the book, the girl pro­tag­o­nist attends a dance class on the East Coast. I tracked down a mid-19th-cen­tu­ry eti­quette book that had rules for such events. You may be sure I used it. That said, the sto­ry in Gold Rush Girl is entire­ly invented. 

In my recent Loy­al­ty, a tale of the ear­ly days of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, I could take advan­tage of the many accounts of the bat­tles of Lex­ing­ton and Con­cord. But in my telling, I insert­ed a fic­tion­al char­ac­ter who reacts to the bat­tles in a very per­son­al way: he is a wit­ness not just to the bat­tles, but to the death of his brother-in-law.

The sto­ry I tell is fic­tion, but, besides the details of the bat­tle — which I believe are true — I have my pro­tag­o­nist — wit­ness that death. Fic­tion. But I gave that broth­er-in-law the real name of a young man who actu­al­ly died in those battles.

Fact and fic­tion combined. 

Some­times I am cor­rect­ed. In The Secret School, set in 1925, four­teen-year-old Ida dri­ves to school in a Mod­el T Ford. (Col­orado intro­duced dri­ving licens­es in 1936.) She han­dles the steer­ing wheel. Being very short, her younger broth­er Felix, on the car floor, works the brake and clutch ped­als. Those ped­dles, as I researched them, were many and com­pli­cat­ed to use. In my telling I got the ped­als mixed up. Short­ly after pub­li­ca­tion, I received a let­ter set­ting me to rights. Lat­er edi­tions have those ped­als right. 

Now, in 2024 I will be pub­lish­ing (work­ing title) Lost in the Empire City. Set in New York City in 1911, it tells the tale of an immi­grant Ital­ian boy who must nav­i­gate the most crowd­ed city in the world — on his own. 

There are count­less accounts of immi­grants pass­ing through Ellis Island. They are fas­ci­nat­ing, and often mov­ing. As it hap­pens, one of the accounts I read was by my grand­moth­er, Miri­am Shomer Zunser

Her mem­oir, titled Yes­ter­day, was first pub­lished in 1939, then edit­ed by my twin sis­ter, Emi­ly Lei­der, and reis­sued by Harper­Collins in 1978. It recounts among many oth­er things, how, as a girl, my grand­moth­er came to Amer­i­ca from Ukraine in 1889. 

In the book, my Grand­moth­er recounts how, when she arrived in Amer­i­ca, she was giv­en a banana by her father. Nev­er hav­ing seen a banana before she was great­ly puz­zled as to how to eat it. 

That fac­tu­al inci­dent is in my fic­tion­al book. 

A 19th-cen­tu­ry fact, writ­ten down by my grand­moth­er in 1939, edit­ed by my twin sis­ter in 1978, writ­ten into my fic­tion in 2024. 

My way of orga­niz­ing the past into a con­tem­po­rary fic­tion­al narrative.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Recent Posts