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.

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