Writing the Historical Novel, Part 2: Using History

A novel that melds both history and fiction may at times seem paradoxical. But in the broader definition, this is fiction set during a particular historical time. It’s fiction, even when its characters are from the pages of history, stories of kings and queens, heroic men and women whom we learned about in school and biographies. Even when a novel follows the life of a real person long dead, the novelist must create dialogue and events by imagining what might have been said or done by the character. Some historical novels feature mostly fictional characters living in a particular era of the past. In Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the fictional characters are placed in authentically realized settings in France and Germany before and during World War II.

In A Stone for Bread, my fictional character Henry Beam spends a year in Paris in the 1950s at a time of political instability when right-wing politicians seemed determined to erase the stain of French collaboration with the Nazis during World War II. This is based on actual history although my characters are fictitious. The story that winds its way through that novel, the story Henry tells Rachel about the mysterious man known only as René, is also fiction, although many of the incidents described in René’s story, the rounding up of French citizens and shipping them to concentration camps like Mauthausen, are true. Many of the atrocities described at Mauthausen, particularly some of the horrors in the treatment of Jewish prisoners, are also true. One can go to the Mauthausen Memorial website and read some of this history. See link.

Not long ago, I read and blurbed N.C. author Charles Fiore’s latest novel The Last Great American Magic (published under L.C. Fiore). This splendid novel is both historical and fanciful, which makes it an excellent study in how one novelist both uses and embellishes history. The novel tells the story of American Indian warrior Tecumseh, yet Fiore makes the character his own by altering the warrior’s story with fictional details that create a portrait that’s partly history, partly the author’s imagination.

Melding history and fiction opens all kinds of possibilities for today’s authors by taking us into fascinating time periods where we can create  stories and characters through the lens of our own imaginations. And the settings for these stories are never out of date.

To order a copy of The Last Great American Magic, go to