I’ve been approached to teach a new class: How To Write Historical Fiction. Flattered at first, and confident about teaching in general, I agreed to give the idea serious thought. How hard could it be? After all, I co-wrote a trilogy of lengthy novels set in the first century BC and followed those with two more written entirely by me — one set in colonial America and the other set in Georgia during WWII. If the reviews the books have gotten are any measure of success, then all five are doing quite well. Readers like them.
Then, just as I’d convinced myself I’d become something of an expert on the topic, I thought of a film which came out about five years ago based on a book which came out two years earlier. The title: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
Was this historical fiction, too? Would I be expected to teach folks how to take real historical characters and set them to doing things that couldn’t possibly have ever happened, at least not in the world I inhabit? The answer, I suppose, is yes. Sure. Why not?
Full disclosure: I haven’t read the book or watched the film about Lincoln’s vampire adventures, and I doubt I ever will. Vampire stories just don’t do anything for me. The old Bela Lugosi films were enough. But the very idea had me thinking about the role of history in fiction. What would be the point of trying to put limits on it? Why should historical fiction be limited to someone’s arbitrary constraints? Just because the books I write don’t portray actual historical characters doing bizarre things, doesn’t mean everyone else should follow suit. Why not write a story about a 19th century, American politician who chases vampires? Or Werewolves? Or unicorns? Hell, why not Pokemon, too? (Uh, no. Bear with me, and I’ll explain.) Evidently, werewolf and vampire stories sell pretty well.
I will venture to guess, however, that Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote the Lincoln story (and collaborated on the screenplay), took a great deal of care with the setting. Lincoln may be chasing vampires, but I’ll bet he isn’t doing it from the back of a Ford convertible, or checking his wristwatch to count the hours before midnight. And I’m certain the ol’ rail-splitter never tripped over Pokemon. All other fantasies aside, some things just didn’t exist in the 19th century. Something in the story must be historically accurate, and I imagine Grahame-Smith made sure there were plenty of such somethings. That’s what makes this kind of story fun. Is it great literature? No, but who cares?
There’s a great deal of charm in the idea that the history we know may not have happened quite the way we learned it in school. Maybe George Washington didn’t chop down a cherry tree. Maybe it was something far more sinister, something that merely adopted the appearance of a cherry tree. <cue evil laughter>
Does this revelation change my thinking about teaching the class? Nope. On the contrary, it opens up an array of possibilities — and possible stories — and anyone who wants to may write one. My job will be to help them write a better story, something I already do.
At its core, fiction is about entertainment. I like historical fiction because it adds the opportunity to educate and challenge preconceptions, too. That’s a wonderful thing. Books don’t need to provide the same mind-numbing pablum we get from television. More and better writers will generate more readers, and hopefully, more enlightened ones.
When I review my own history, much of which was spent in the company of heroes from books, movies, TV, and even a few 78-RPM records, I have questions. Who dreamed up the backstory for Roy Rogers and Dale Evans? Why couldn’t the bad guys ever hit a target? It’s a mystery to me. Do you suppose it was the presence of vampires which prompted the Lone Ranger to use only silver bullets?