Recently I wrote about adaptations of books and rating them. I obviously have a lot of thoughts on both of these subjects. Today I’m talking about a sort of hybrid: historical novels. I think that they are adaptations of history and therefore, I’m going to rate them as such…

I recently read “Lost Roses” by Martha Hall Kelly, her new prequel to “Lilac Girls” (which I also read) I also recently read “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris. There may be spoilers ahead: I’m not sure how I want to pen my ideas.

Historical novels are books based on actual events yet are fictional. Hmmmm. Should we be doing this? Why would we do it? What could go wrong when we take an actual event and fictionalize it? Are you starting to see where I’m going with this?

I know both of these books are based on actual events. They speak of real people who did things in their lives. In one case, the author had actually spoken to the namesake tattooer. So these things really happened.

Mainly.

And there’s the problem. We take an actual person, an actual thing that they did, and then you build a fictional story around it. Fictional. As in, one thing was real, and maybe 80% is what the author dreamed up based on historical documents. Hmmmm.

As a fledgling writer I have been in classes where I have presented a story or chapter and have been met with choruses of “That would never happen in real life.” “That’s not believable.” Even published authors have received criticism that things aren’t realistic. (and we all know that sometimes what we write, even though labeled as fiction, is actually based on real events, so like it or not, things happen). So with actual fiction, every story, anecdote and happening must pass the believability test. It has to actually seem like it would happen. Not so much with historical fiction.

I think there is much more license to be creative when something is deemed historical and based on a true event. You have to believe it because this is a real character who had a real life and real things that led to this incident or time in history. You must believe all the words on a page because it “happened”. It’s based on a “true story”.

I call bullshit.

Here come the spoilers.

“Tattooist” is basically a love story. Boy meets girl as he is branding her with a tattoo in Auschwitz, a concentration camp run by the Nazi’s in World War II. All these things are fact. Real people, real places, real events. Truth. The author actually spoke to the tattooer before he died.

But the story…If this was the first Holocaust book that someone read, they would have a very poor understanding of what it was. This book was more reminiscent of summer camp, and boys and girls sneaking behind the cabin to have sex. Which is literally a scene in this book. Now I want to ask you logically: with what you know about concentration camps and Nazi’s, do you think that a male and female prisoner would be able to sneak behind a building to have sex (excuse me- make love) and long talks? Do you understand why I looked at the book and said “Bullshit”?

Now, in this case I’m not blaming the author. She actually interviewed the main character back in the early 2000’s. But honestly, I can’t imagine his memories were very real. First off, by then he was probably in his 90’s. I’m sorry, memory fades with age. Secondly, he is a Holocaust survivor: he is going to have the memories he chooses to have because he survived one the most horrific periods in history. Like anyone who has experienced a personal tragedy, they need to separate things in their mind- the survivor instinct lets you build a whole new reality. But to say “Based on a True Story”? I take offense to using those words with this book.

In “Lost Roses” I am totally blaming the author. She has chosen to write about women in a prominent New York society family during WWI. I don’t think she actually spoke to any of the women personally. These women were pioneers in helping those who could not help themselves, refugees and others. Commendable. Women like this should be recognized.

But…

To say that there were parts of this story that were ridiculous is an understatement. The coincidences and chances of fate that happen? You would not believe how many people happened to be walking down the street at the same time as their love from twenty years prior, especially as they are now in a completely different city. And the degrees of separation? every time they met someone new, that person knew all their friends and relatives. Amazing. Fate at its finest.

Bullshit.

How many acts of fate and coincidence am I supposed to believe because something is labeled “based on a true story.” In 1917 Russia, am I supposed to believe that a woman by herself was able to get a horse and a cart through the revolution and onto Paris? Really? In a country with no food and constant rioting because no one was really in charge, a beautiful woman was able to get out alive, feed herself and feed her horse, from St. Petersburg to Paris? Really?

Come. On.

But I guess it happened because it was based on a true story.

So yes, I’m throwing the entire historical fiction novel, especially those based on a true story, under the bus. Don’t get me started on revisionist history either- just because we wish something was so doesn’t mean it was. But that’s not even a blog- that’s a book…

So…

Historical fiction? Yay or nay?

 

 

57 thoughts on “History?

  1. LOL – I often feel the same and especially as I am writing too, I find it amusing when someone tells me “that can’t happen.” I smile and say, “Well, that is the beauty of being a writer, I can write what I would like to read… truth or fantasy, whatever it might be, FOR SURE, there is someone out there that has the same tastes in reading as I do — I am writing for that audience.”

    Game of Thrones, I enjoy the show, but riding flying dragons, monsters from the dead… we enjoy it, because it is different.

    Keep writing what YOU want – there is “someone” who will enjoy your novel one day.

    Writers keep re-doing Wizard of Oz, Pride and Prejudice, Les Miserables, Hawaii Five-O, Magnum PI, etc., because they can’t come up with NEW material, so they take a story that exists and they put a different spin on it. BORING

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  2. So LA, are you ticked about what the genre is labelled or focused on the fact that there are those readers who will attribute the writing as complete fact based upon one or two historical aspects of the book?
    I like that little tie to real events that you find in historical fiction, but the operative word is “fiction” in all this. If a reader takes that much license with applying fact to clearly written fiction then perhaps they simply need to trundle on back to English 101 and figure out terminology!
    I’m not sure we should blame the writer in this, unless the whole thing is just so horrendous as to be unreadable that is.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I think it’s what historical fiction has evolved into. It used to be based on a true story was just an interesting tale of an event, and some license was taken but it seems reasonably in line for the times. I like historical fiction because it has given me a different aspect of a time period. But, I. D.o.n.t like that authors are making revisionist or implausible storylines that in no way reflect the actual times they are writing about. I get that truth is stranger than fiction. But there’s a point where something takes me so out of a story it’s no longer an enjoyable read, or interesting. In lost roses, by the time you get to the 20th coincidence and you’re only halfway through the book it’s just a badly executed storyline. The fact that it’s a bestseller is incomprehensible. Are people reading it or just buying it?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. So a new genre perhaps? What would be an appropriate label for quasi-historical bad writing?

        Oooo, now there’s another interesting blog topic- why do people buy the books that they do? Do they read the excerpt to look like they are knowledgeable but never actually open the pages, then just leave the book lying around so others think they are well-read… 🙂

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      2. Oooh…now I have to come up with something pithy….”not so historical fiction”….. I think people do buy books just to look more I earned than they are. I was once on vacation and I saw someone reading a very “in” best seller that was somewhat deep, but it turns out they weren’t really reading that book…. I oooked over there shoulder because I am a horrible,e over reader of people with books and newspapers….it was just the dust jacket over I think a Jackie Collins or some such….

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  3. For me, it depends on who the author is writing about. If they are writing about a well-known, well-documented person (let’s say Elizabeth I), then I want them to stick to the facts. Elizabeth I’s life was dramatic enough without changing things or turning into a 16th-century lady detective (which has happened). If we have someone like Christopher Marlowe (real person, but far less documented), then there is more room to imagine their lives (in the case of Philip dePoy’s two Marlowe mysteries, he took what we know about Kit Marlowe- that he was a spy of some kind and used that to speculate what COULD have happened).

    If the characters are made up and set during the Elizabethan era, then have at it. Be imaginative. Just stick to the facts of the era, and you’re good to go.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That I agree with. Tell a good story, use historic detail, but make it realistic to the time period. That’s what was so tough about the tattooist book….it goes against everything I know about that time period. And obviously these people fell in love, but how can you romanticize the holocaust? I understand why people want to, but it just didn’t make sense and I wouldn’t want someone to have this as their basis to the time period

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      1. I wouldn’t want that to be someone’s entry into the Holocaust, either. There’s no grounds on which to romanticize it, and trying to turn the concentration camps into other than what they were is not something any author should do.

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  4. I’ve never been a fan of historical fiction in relation to real people or events. I have loved the hell out of novels set in various time periods, but everything about those are fiction and not based on specific people or events, or at least not in a way that it isn’t obvious that it is purely fiction. Part of my feelings about it is that I would prefer to know what is fact vs fiction and you won’t get that from a fiction novel based on real events because that defeats the purpose. When telling of historical events from a fiction standpoint, they tend to get romanticized, both figuratively and literally.

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  5. I LOVE reading your critiques. 😀

    Though you may be working from a sore spot (wondering why people can criticize your book scenes and not these), I heartily agree.

    I mean, we read a book about a time-traveling …forensics expert? Strangely enough, I could buy into the time travel. I could buy into the idea that the female protagonist was the product of two intelligent parents trying to create a super genius child. I even (mostly) bought into the gruesome way the villain in the story preferred to rape his victims.

    I could not ever wrap my head around how the nobility group in the book allowed her so much trust and freedom and impropriety to interrogate their friends and do autopsies on victims.

    Another beef I have is when the characters do not sound or act like the time period. Similar point to the one I described (the nobility would not have allowed that) and to the one you made (can’t sneak around a high security concentration camp).

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    1. I know! How do you work around things that just would not have happened in that time period? And these aren’t satires or comedies meant to be ludicrous….these are novels! I have no problem with a time travel book, but yeah, things need to be somewhat authentic. You can’t have a scene that’s so out of a character as to take someone out if the book!

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  6. You are making excellent points here. In my simplistic mind a book is either history or biography or fiction. While I understand the genre known as ‘historical fiction’ and often read books from it, I don’t for a minute think of those books as anything more than fiction– even with some real life people in the stories. I wonder if eventually we’ll see a few more genre names that more accurately describe the content and intent within each book, but until we do it’s all fiction to me.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s what deb was leaning towards…what should these books really be called? And yes…there’s a book based on historical events or there’s fiction. And you can base a novel in a different time period, but take don’t put based on true events in the title page…put that in a prologue or authors note

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  7. I’ve always enjoyed well-written historical fiction, but enjoy non-fiction even more now. I think this “based on a true story” thing has gotten out of hand. If real people and events are being depicted in a novel, then the author needs to stick pretty close to the facts. Now, sometimes people write outrageous stories using a true-life person (e.g. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Killer), and that’s fine, but not something I would ever read!

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    1. You’re right. Based on a true story now has a whole new meaning….it’s like these are real people and there’s one actual true event, but I took ridiculous liberties with everything else…..I don’t get it. I want to read a good story if it’s fiction, or an interesting take/anecdote if it’s true, but this odd hybrid we created is ridiculous

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  8. I am a fan of historical fiction. I like learning about a certain era or person in an entertaining way. And typically I will follow up and read a biography or non-fiction book about that time. Historical fiction is a good starting point for me to learn about the past. Obviously some books are better than others though. I loved “All the Light We Cannot See”, “The Baker’s Secret” and Rhys Bowens’ Molly Murphy series.

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    1. I loved all the light…that book was incredible. I think the problem is the amount of books that are fiction but based on true events or people. I think this is a hard line to straddle

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      1. I think it’s the cheater’s way of having ready-made characters, setting, plot, and just stealing all that and sticking what you want in–maybe it’s an age thing, or an internet-era thing, but…it’s lying and not something I like, personally–like when they put some lying things in the movie about Freddie Mercury–IT’S HIS BIOGRAPHY. You can’t make up stuff that was very significant and didn’t happen and present it as part of his life, without him around to approve that or not.

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  9. I usually like historical fiction, but I am reading a story of people in that era not a specific date or person. I think the “based on a true story” type of fiction are blurring lines so they are neither biographical or straight fiction. I think most writers take from their own lives and embellish to make a story and isn’t that historical fiction? I mean it is the writer’s history? I do think it is up to the reader to take the material presented and glean from it what they will.

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  10. I like reading historical fiction. But when it comes to “based on a true story” thing, I just ignore this sentence. Both in movies and the novels. What I generally enjoy is learning about the etiquette; the way they dressed, communicated, dined and so on, of that particular era. And when you mention WW1, I just cannot help but compare any piece of literature written on the subject with the The book thief.

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  11. You’ve made some excellent points. I seldom read historical fiction, unless it is something like Sarah’s Key, where the time period is real, but the actual story is fiction.

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  12. I only like historical fiction that is very well-researched and very- well written. (Andrew Taylor’s, for example.) But I do agree that the “based on a true story” theme has gotten completely out of hand. And what’s scary is that too many people believe that the story is actually true, when it’s mostly fiction simply based on an event or a person. My book club once read a book that everyone else loved, but I found very annoying…..because the main character’s “awakening” was entirely based on someone who lived almost 100 years ago “coming around” to modern thinking. Meaning that we are imposing our values on that time, when they didn’t exist then. And also saying that the values we hold today are the absolute truth. Do people really think that in another 100 years what we consider to be “progressive” today isn’t going to be considered ignorant and hopelessly old fashioned? Seriously…. Time marches on. Always has, always will!

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    1. That’s my problem…people read these books and they think its reality. It’s revisionist history and it’s not doing anyone any favors by doing it. History is one thing. Fiction is another. The hybrid but be carefully researched.

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  13. Apologies for coming in late ( I’ve just finished four assignments for Uni).
    I’m going to go the other way and say that if it wasn’t for historical fiction there would be so many more of us who knew nothing of our history. Military and political history can be dreadfully dry, but the audience, and the history umbrella, enlarge the audience with a little fiction.

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    1. But some of this historical fiction is so very wrong so people don’t know history anyway. If someone read tattooist of Auschwitz they would have absolutely no idea what the holocaust was like.

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  14. You’ve got so many wise comments on this already that I’m going to weigh in on something a bit different — the fact, dear LA, that I looove when anyone loves books as much as we do that we indeed have strong feelings about the writing. Bravo to you & everyone commenting here 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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