Saturday, September 26, 2009

Article on historical fiction

A short article, blog entry really, by Celeste Ng appeared recently in Fiction Writer's Review. (Click on Ng's name to get to the article.) Ng responds to a lecture given at Breadloaf by Maud Casey. It's worth looking at. Casey's lecture seems to have been a reaction to the idea entertained by many readers that if they read a historical novel they know what it was "really like" to live at a given time or know a given person. Apparently, Casey was told by one French civil servant that he read historical fiction because he didn't want to "waste his time" simply reading something that somebody "made up." Casey's point and Ng's is that we "make up" in historical fiction as much as any other kind of ficiton. This is most obvious when a completely fictitious character narrates or is simply inserted into a historical piece. But it's also true, I think, when one is developing a very real person. Finally, it's the author's idea of the person that must carry the book and that he must remain truthful to, even if that means ignoring or changing historical fact. A historical novel has to work as a novel first and foremost; it's not supposed to, and can't, simply be a matter of passing on information in a more user-friendly way. Not, Ng points out, like blending the spinach of factual info into the brownie of a novel.

All the above is true and needs to be said. With my novel, I know I'm going to have to shout loud and clear, until the message finallhy gets through: "Be forewarned. This is a NOVEL. I am NOT writing a biography." However, I don't think we should discount the usefulness of factual information to the writer of the historical fiction. You don't want to be enslaved by fact, but being wthout fact can actually blunt the imagination. I've found that reading Van Gogh's letters and biographies about him often stimulates my imagination; this activity helps me visualize scenes as well as settings. And not only scenes that actually happened; sometimes scenes that never did. In fact, a number of times in my writing of this book I've wished I could have more information on what a person did or looked like. Or what a neighborhood or apartment looked like. Just a sentence or two of information is sometimes all it takes to engage your fictive, visualizing imagination. (Ng explains that only a one sentence reference in The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook inspired Monique Truong to invent the narrator of her novel The Book of Salt.) With that sentence or two I can draw a whole picture--but I really do need that sentence or two. And I'm sure I'm not unusual in this regard. Finally, such "facts" may be more necessary and useful to the writer than the reader.


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