The Power of Historical Fiction

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I love to read. For the past 20 years plus, I’ve read on average 150 books a year. I even keep a list in my journal of all those books, so could prove it to you if you wanted! Books on history always figure prominently on that list, but not only non-fiction. I also love the genre of historical fiction. My latest one is titled Cutting for Stone by Indian-American writer Dr. Abraham Verghese.

This book has the elements of what I value in historical fiction. It is set in Ethiopia over a period of about forty years, dealing with issues of immigration from India and set in a hospital in the capital of Addis Ababa. The first element I value is what this book has in rich measure, a well researched context. Historical context must be accurate, or the book should rather be in the science fiction or fantasy genre.

Secondly, a work of historical fiction should enable the reader to fill the gaps in a story by way of allowing the imagination room to function. As British historian Herbert Butterfield has written, “The historical novel fills the gaps in the evidence by means of the imagination, recovers the things which to history are irrecoverable, and brings us near to human hearts and human passions, closer to the heart of things.”

These are certainly high claims, and it must be said that historical fiction is not meant to be a source to depend on in understanding a period in any fullness. In historical study, we must always get as close to what happened as possible through primary sources, such as letters, diaries, books written by the actual people of the time. But historical fiction indeed can fill in gaps in understanding by allowing us to use our imagination.

Thirdly, historical fiction allows us to get closer to the people involved by seeing things through their eyes. Of course this will be the interpretation of the writer, and we must always be aware of that. But being able to imagine how someone lived through Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule in Ethiopia, especially as an Indian national living there, is a key element for further understanding.

Fourthly, like any fiction a historical novel should have beautiful and believable writing. Dr. Verghese’s novel clearly meets this criteria. His characters are richly portrayed, and it is the kind of book that you really don’t want to end! I am almost finished with it, and find myself wondering what will happen to each character by the end. Again, that should be the case in any work of fiction.

Lastly, when reading a work of historical fiction, you should be able to say that you are learning new things about the context and history of the place. Often when I am going to a new country or a new part of the United States, I love to find a book about the place written preferably by someone from there. Sometimes it is a work of non-fiction, but often it also may be a historical novel if available. I have recently been reading historical novels by Ivan Doig on the history of Montana and have thoroughly enjoyed them.

I know several people that don’t read historical fiction because they somehow find them daunting or intimidating, especially if the novels carry a certain amount of bulk. But I encourage you to take one on, preferably about a place in the world that interests you already. Maybe in a future post I’ll give a list of some of my favorite historical novels. What are some of yours?

I have now written two works of historical non-fiction, and working presently on a third. But I’ve always wondered about attempting to write a work of historical fiction, even perhaps about ninth century Asia which is my primary research interest.

Stay tuned, maybe I will. Until then, how about you pick up a work of historical fiction?

3 thoughts on “The Power of Historical Fiction

  1. Hi Steve, I read this book several years ago and loved it for all the reasons you state. Now, I want to read it again! Maybe it will be my book club choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. During my 9 years in India and Nepal, I was first introduced to historical fiction. Because of my academic background in political analysis and historical trends, I had confined historical fiction to simple entertainment.

    While living with my very successful, long-term colleagues, I suddenly realised that all of them were avid readers of historical fiction. They actually enjoyed reading about their local placement and peoples. These books had creative authors, who filled in the gaps with well-researched information coupled with their own heartfelt imagination. Today, I read primarily historical fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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