Writing the Historical Novel, Part 1

When I began writing fiction, I never thought of myself as a historical novelist. Yet my two published novels tell stories that involve not only historical events but include chapters set in two epochal wars of the 20th century: in Absolution, Vietnam, in A Stone for Bread, World War II. My as yet unpublished novel Sun, which I sometimes jokingly refer to as the third in Herin’s war trilogy, is set during the 19th century’s Second Seminole Indian War.


In college, I majored in both English and History, so authoring fiction that encompasses history should not be surprising. Yet when I began Absolution and A Stone for Bread, I had no idea their stories would take me into actual war arenas: in Absolution, a U.S. military camp in Vietnam and in A Stone for Bread, a Nazi concentration camp. Yet I found the journey fascinating and one that not only offered this writer essential “story” elements, but also provided me important insights into the 20th century, insights that remain invaluable in today’s seemingly chaotic times.


In the early years of the 21st century, I discovered another reason for writing historical fiction. I began Absolution in 2002, in the summer following 9/11. At the time, I decided to set the novel prior to 9/11. It was much too soon, I believed, to use such a horrific event in fiction. But by the time I finished Absolution, America was four years beyond the Trade Towers attack. That’s when I decided to include the attack in the novel.


What I learned from that was a surprising realization: these days, it isn’t easy to shift a novel even a few years forward or backward in time. Why? Because we live in a world of constant technological change in which everyday items like telephones, TVs and appliances, even food packaging are constantly being redesigned and altered. And in the business of book publishing, it may take several years before a novel finds a publisher and another year before the actual book is released.


Is it any wonder then why so many of today’s best writers such as Anthony Doerr, Hilary Mantel and George Saunders, to name a few, are turning to the past for their novels?