History versus Historical Fiction

I’m a history professor and an author of historical fiction, so some days it feels like I spend all my waking hours in the past. I’ve published academic works, including a book with a major university press and articles in scholarly journals. And soon I’ll publish my debut novel, The Lion and the Fox, set in sixteenth-century Florence.

We tend to think of history and historical fiction as two very different things: history is that dusty old stuff, the names and dates that you struggled to memorize in school, and historical fiction is fun, engaging, and entertaining. History is "dry," and historical fiction is sexy. Or, to put it another way, history is the image of Machiavelli on the left, which looks like a real person, and historical fiction is the version on the right, altered to be more pleasing to our eyes.

But there are more similarities between writing in the two genres than you might imagine.

First, both history and historical fiction have to contain a narrative. That’s no surprise for a novel, but we don’t often think of non-fiction history books as containing a narrative. Yet historians, faced with the reality of incomplete sources, have to create their own narratives to explain what happened in the past. And just like a fictional narrative, it has to be persuasive and logical. 

Both history and historical fiction have the power to surprise us, to transmit us to another era. Historians aren’t generally known for the rhetorical flourishes that make historical fiction so engaging, yet history can be just as exciting as historical fiction. If you still have any doubts, check out Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre, which tells the engaging and true story of Martin Guerre, a sixteenth-century French peasant who abandoned his wife and young child, but then reappeared after nearly a decade. Or was it an imposter? You’ll have to read the book to find out!

And both history and historical fiction require suspending our modern understanding of behavior, manners, beliefs, and assumptions, in order to immerse ourselves in another time and place. As novelist L.P. Hartley wrote in 1953, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” As authors, scholars, and readers of both history and historical fiction, we have to always remember that the past is not like the present. And that’s one reason I love writing both history and historical fiction—they have an amazing ability to teach us, and surprise us!