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The Fiction of History

I asked a question in my writing group today about how history affected the writing of my fellow authors. Almost all replied that history or contemporary events had an effect. Of some kind. As one example, how has your writing been affected by the pandemic? What about the political changes of the last four years? Hell, what about the last year? I am an American and our world has gone round and round like an 80's New Wave ballad. I am at least peripherally aware of major changes in other nations as well. The history of the last twenty-four months will have a profound effect on the world moving forward and thus on writing as well.

But even now, with more access to information than humans every have, at least in some nations, we still do not have a clear picture of what is going on. Who is telling us the truth. Which science is the accurate science? Will Marvel ever make a bad movie/show? If trying to figure out what happened yesterday is hard, with smart phones and the Internet, then how the hell can we know what happened 6,000 years ago?

The truth is that we cannot. Historians and archeologists and anthropologists (and others) do their best, but primary sources are unreliable narrators. The Bible, associated with a number of religions, is one part mythology and one part narrowly focused history. And it is full or unreliable narrators giving an interpretation of events that they may not even have lived through. Other books are similar. Do we believe all of the writings of Julius Caesar or do we take some of it with a grain of salt?

So how can we be sure that the history we base our fiction on, is not fiction itself?

I think there are two approaches here. First, the scholarship of others is there for us to take advantage of. We do our best to base our fiction and stories on the information we have at hand. Until time travel is perfected our understanding of the past will be imperfect. So you do the research and create a sense verisimilitude.

But there is a second approach: let the fictions of fact inform your fiction. Lean into the unknown and the anecdotal. After all, most people are not trying to replicate history so much as replicate the emotions that come with history. Who killed who two hundred years ago really does not matter. Why they did it and how that killing makes us feel today are the emotional threads we need to pull on. I am not speaking justice here, because justice requires as many facts as we can get our hands on. I am talking fictional or quasi-historical situations that can inform our own stories.

Just make sure the reader knows that these are your opinions of the facts/fictions of history. Trying to sell your version of events, especially when the facts do not bear it out, seems anti-intellectual, cruel, and maybe a bit self-serving.

~SM Hillman


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