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Writing Nonfiction History vs. Historical Fiction

Author John Cameron discusses how nonfiction history and historical fiction are more similar than they are different.

Good history and good historical fiction are two branches of an intellectual river seeking to illuminate the past. I have long believed in the value of each branch. Having now written both genres, I am convinced they are more similar than different. Both have plots and subplots, story arcs, characters, and POVs that can change. There is only one unignorable difference between them: One is beautiful in its accuracy while the other is compelling in its fluidity.

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The job of the historian is to tell the stories of the past. She, however, may only write about what she has found in the sources or what she can logically deduce from them. She may not create characters or dialogue. Each fact or conclusion must be cited in a footnote, and that citation must be accurate. Woe the historian who ignores, even accidentally, this requirement. She will be publicly pilloried. Even well-established historians like Doris Kerns Goodwin have come in for biting criticism when suspected of such violations.

The historical novelist also tells the stories of the past. He is free to create any character or minor event he wishes if it enhances or helps to tell the story. The novelist has only one major restriction: He may not violate actual history. For example, he may not have Thomas Jefferson attend the Constitutional Convention in 1787 or have Hamilton kill Burr.

Some years back, I ran across a fantastic trove of letters from North Carolina soldiers in the Civil War. I decided to write a history of these men and others like them. But should I write a history or a novel? Both appealed. Why not write both? Thus, the genesis of Tar Heels in Gray and The Roads of War.

Writing Nonfiction History vs. Historical Fiction

In one way, the historian has the easier task of setting the scene. She only need to state what her slice of history will cover. When I wrote Tar Heels in Gray, I could assume that readers would know the basic outline of the Civil War. I did not have to identify major actors or to explain what the Battle of Gettysburg was. There was no need to talk about clothing, how food was cooked, or a hundred other details unless they were pertinent to the development of my narration.

On the other hand, the novelist must use hundreds of small details to be sure his reader is in the correct place and time. Without that detail, the novel is the 21st century plopped into a different time. That’s not historical fiction. On the other hand, the novelist shouldn’t pound the reader with too much detail, lest it read like a boring list of life’s details in the past. Subtlety is required. For example, The Roads of War opens just before dawn on January 2, 1862, in central North Carolina. Lewis MacCormack is in his barnyard smashing ice from a trough so his animals can drink. Then he visits the outhouse and thinks to himself, damn, that plank is cold. The reader knows MacCormack lives on a farm where there are no machines, running water, or indoor plumbing.

Writing Nonfiction History vs. Historical Fiction

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There were many things I could not say in Tar Heels in Gray, even though I believed I knew the probable truth. How did soldiers feel about the war both in the beginning and when it was clear they had lost but were still fighting and dying? How did their families cope at home? How did enslaved people feel about the war and how it might affect them? At such times I would turn my pen to The Roads of War, where there were no such limitations. My love of history always drew me back to Tar Heels. I had the best of both worlds.

In Tar Heels in Gray, the reader learns the horrors of war from the perspective of 1,500 men thrown into the same unit. He sees death and disease rates. He follows the men in and out of battle and hardship, but it is always a top-down understanding.

In the Roads of War, the reader gets to know intimately a handful of people. What were their fears and hopes? What compromises were they forced to make to survive? Most of all, the reader sees the complexity of all people who don’t always fit the molds we have assigned them. We learn how complicated history is to understand completely.

I return where I began. We have two ways to illuminate the past, both of value and interest. One, history, is science with its rigorous structure. The other, fiction, is purely creative. We would be impoverished if we could only choose one.

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