Monday, June 9, 2014

Faking it…the Importance of Historical Fiction

In the last few days our nation, and large parts of Europe, gave pause to remember a monument in the history of the 20th century—D-Day. I’m sure there is little need to revisit the event in any detail, especially with the amount of press coverage for the past few days as we mark 70th anniversary this year. At first, making a spectacle of the 70th anniversary seems a bit mute, it doesn’t ring out like the 50th anniversary, or even the 100th. But as far as marking great events in terms of decades, this year holds extra significance. Few veterans from that day are left among us, and more take their leave of our world with every passing sunset. When we come to celebrating the 80th anniversary, it’s quite possible it will be a remembrance only, with no first-hand stories to hear. Living history is passing as I write this.

I’m sure someone out there is scratching their head and wondering what any of this has to do with writing. It’s actually pretty simple. Several of the earlier posts on The Prose & Cons have talked about the importance of books (PeterHogenkamp) or why Science Fiction and Fantasy Matter (Garrett Calcaterra). So true! I’m just adding another genre to the list of things that matter, Historical Fiction. That’s what chose me as a writer—history. And I’m not talking about the type of history we learn in school. I’m talking about the antidote to those history lessons—the real living parts of history that are forgotten unless someone puts pen to paper.

Can you imagine standing on a troop transport off the Normandy shore 70 years ago? Let’s close our eyes and see if we can…(okay, don’t close your eyes because then you can’t read). No high-tech fabrics to protect against the wind whipping up across the English Channel—just cotton and wool, and leather boots with a heavy steel helmet. Your hands clutched the wooden stock of a rifle, not the lightweight carbines the military sports today, but solid wood to absorb the recoil of a large caliber cartridge. With each step to the landing craft the sea spray soaks the air and loosens the clutch on your weapon, the one thing you know you’ll need if you make it on shore. Then there’s the intolerable ride to the beach, the boat pitching and heaving (sorry Liz!) all the way to the surf line. Finally, the landing doors drop…

Those little details, the smallest things that were so important to those who experienced them, are lost by the time the June 6th 1944 was pressed into a history text. And in 10 or 20 years it’s possible that no one will be around to share them with us. So what will we have left? What will resurrect the texture of life that time erases?

Of course, there is plenty of historical non-fiction (and not just about D-Day!) There are amazing books in that genre, like Manhunt by James Swanson, recounting the chase for President Lincoln’s killers and the other conspirators. These books are also antidotes to the history texts of our youth, but all too often even the great writing they contain may not truly address the human part of the equation. They have to stick to the script that History wrote for them no matter what. And that’s where Historical Fiction enters the stage—a beautiful mix of reality and illusion—stories that illuminate the human condition while teaching us about History in all those glorious little details. In essence, we fake it! But we have to fake it well. To borrow from JoeClifford’s earlier post, “We are architects manifesting an illusion…”

And so like every other genre, Historical Fiction deserves its well-earned shelf-space. I couldn’t say it any better than Susan Clayton Goldner who just a few days ago wrote, “Stories allow us to spend time with the living and the dead. In the acts of telling, reading and writing them, we discover truths--things we didn't know we knew.” And while Susan is talking about writing in general, a good historical can teach us not only who we are, but also who we were.

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