The Goldilocks Question

Guest Post by Ann S. Epstein –

How much history is “too little,” “too much,” or “just right” in historical fiction? The Goldilocks Question confronts the genre’s readers and writers alike. Some fans accent history; others fiction. Some are sticklers for abundant and accurate detail. Others tolerate wrinkles and fissures in the truth. We agree that a satisfying historical novel seamlessly weaves together both elements, but differ on the optimal balance. Having published six historical novels and dozens of short stories, I know what works for me. Others aim for a different ratio. Where do you fit on the scale?

First, assess the allure of historical fiction. Implicit in the opening of each story are the words “Once upon a time.” Like a fairytale, the word “fiction” alerts us that the story is made-up, but if you gravitate toward literary fiction, that term is a magnet, not a warning. You’re after deeper truths, and those are illuminated through invention.

Perversely, I disliked studying history as a schoolchild. The 1950s curriculum emphasized memorizing names and dates, especially discoveries and conquests, that were disconnected from students’ lives. By contrast, when I began to write novels and stories fifty years later, doing background research was an engaging part of the creative process. Alas, my notes often run longer than the manuscript itself, so I’m forced to decide how much history to include. I follow the “five percent rule;” that is, about one-twentieth of the research appears in the final work. This reducing diet may sound draconian, but bear in mind that I’m writing a story, not an academic treatise. Further, since my interests span a variety of subjects and eras, including contemporary topics, I don’t want to be boxed in by the “historical” half of the label. Most, if not all, of us have eclectic tastes.

 Second, consider what draws you to a work of literature. I was raised to love learning for its own sake. Whenever my grandmother learned something new, she’d say, in Yiddish, “I’m glad I didn’t die yesterday or I wouldn’t have known that.” Fun facts aside, I ultimately write and read for insights into human nature. Those come from the story. Regardless of the time frame, writers and readers seek complex characters, meaningful conflicts, well rendered settings, and intriguing plots. Nonfiction narratives that tell a good “story” satisfy these same literary needs.

Fiction writer Alice Hoffman also weighs in on the “fiction” end of the scale. Asked about the role of research in her work, she says, “I do quite a bit of research before I start a project, then stop for a while because I have to step away from history and write a novel” and “While the research is interesting, the most important thing is writing the novel and creating the characters” (“Story Magic” by Jack Smith, The Writer, October 2017). I’m with her.

To determine whether you’re a papa bear, mama bear, baby bear, or another creature entirely, answer the following questions when you write or read a work of historical fiction:

  • Does the historic detail enrich the character(s)? Period observations are integral when they reveal something about a person. Examples include: clothing worn to make an impression on a superior or love interest; a popular song recollected by friends; an architectural landmark noticed at a moment of calm or stress. A useless detail is the name of every station on the NYC D train in 1940 (unless, of course, your character is obsessed with subway routes).
  • Does that piece of history further the plot? When I begin my research, I know the time and place I want to write about and the overall story arc. I seek details to anchor and flesh these out. Beyond that, I’m free to roam, so serendipity lets me uncover things that spark plot ideas. For example, after I read about Chicago meat-packing plants a century ago, one (unfortunate) character lost fingers in a grinding machine. What bit(s) of history impel you to write or read on?
  • Does an historical fact immerse you in the period? Writers and readers want to live in a scene with the characters. One or two sensory details can transport us there. For example: a gesture that conveys social class; the feel of air in a coal-fueled city; the smell of a tenement hallway; the squeaks and crackles emitted by an old radio; the taste of “Maconochie’s stew.”
  • Is the information too good to leave out? Resisting a delicious fact is as hard as passing up dessert, even when you’re stuffed. Indulgences are allowed but, as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in 1914, sometimes you must “murder your darlings.” A juicy tidbit needn’t disappear forever, though. Tuck it away for the future, or enjoy it in a different form. For example, my “leftovers” go in a “Learn History Through Fiction” feature on my website, as well as in Facebook and Twitter (X) posts.

Finally, consider which word is the noun (the primary word) and which is the adjective (the secondary word). Typically, the genre is called historical fiction, NOT fictional history. Perhaps they should be separate genres, to reflect that difference. Personally, I’m gratified if, by the time I finish a manuscript, I’ve forgotten what’s real and what’s made-up. If you agree, you’ll emphasize the “fiction” part of “historical fiction” and look elsewhere for “real” history. If you want a self-contained history lesson in your fiction, you’ll prefer an alternative balance. There are no “shoulds” in this business except the ultimate one: To tell a good story.

Ann S. Epstein writes novels, stories, memoir, poems, and essays. Her awards include a Pushcart Prize creative nonfiction nomination, Walter Sullivan fiction prize, Historical Novel Review Editors’ Choice selection, and St. Lawrence Book Award Finalist nomination. Her novels are On the Shore, Tazia and Gemma, A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve., The Great Stork Derby, One Person’s Loss, and The Sister Knot. Her other work appears in North American Review, Sewanee Review, PRISM International, Ascent, The Long Story, and elsewhere. She also has a PhD in developmental psychology, MFA in fiber art, and certification as an end-of-life doula. Her website is https://www.asewovenwords.com.

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