I am very impressed by people who write historical fiction. As much work as it is to write fantasy or sci-fi, you aren’t bound by the confines of reality when you write in these areas. If you want to write a story about a broadsword-wielding female knight who’s a heroine of the realm, you can go ahead and make up a world where that’s a perfectly normal (or at least socially accepted) thing to do – and if it isn’t socially acceptable, you can create ways in which your character can circumvent the rules and end up being a hero anyway. (The Alanna series by Tamora Pierce is an excellent example.)
Writing a fantasy story set in the modern real world is slightly more difficult, but still allows for a degree of creative license. While you have to be accurate in your descriptions of real settings, you still have free reign over the rest of your story. You want your characters to have grown up in fairyland and be able to read people’s minds? Go right on ahead. You want your protagonist to be able to travel from China to the United States and back in twenty-four hours? Give them a magical rod of teleportation.
I recently read an excellently written urban fantasy book by Katherine Kurtz that makes good use of both research and imagination. It’s titled The Adept, and follows the adventures of a nobleman in modern-day (1990s) Scotland who is also a sorcerer-detective. He tracks down users of the Dark Arts with his Powers of Light and brings them to Justice – with the help of the fey and the Loch Ness monster upon occasion. Kurtz’s research on her setting is detailed: place names and detailed routes abound, with descriptions that help the reader see Scotland as clearly as if he/she was watching a film. But the author’s system of magic allows for the creation of a unique plot that could never happen in real life. Seeing backward in time, magically discovering where a missing person (or object) is currently located, using a magical artifact to summon up fairies – all of these are crucial elements of The Adept that Kurtz created out of her own mind to advance the story that she wanted to tell.
Writing historical fiction, in contrast, leaves no margin for error. When done well, it teaches the heart as well as the mind, bringing a unique perspective on real events that help readers better understand humanity’s past. When done poorly, it is an embarrassment to the author at best – and at worst, can cause serious harm to readers and society by influencing their perceptions and beliefs in ways that are not reflective of reality. The dangers of writing poor historical fiction are compounded when an author attempts to write about a Historically Important Event – for instance, concentration camps in World War II.
It was for these above reason that I was initially reluctant to read Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. A sequel (kind of) to her critically acclaimed (besides gripping and heart-wrenching) Code Name Verity, the book is the first-person account of a fictional American female pilot who is captured and interred at Ravensbruck. In many ways, this book is a female young-adult version of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. However, while Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner himself in a Soviet work camp, Wein had to do her research from scratch.
Though I was trepidatious at first, I soon discovered that the author had, indeed, done her homework. And the result is very, very impressive. Like Code Name Verity, the book is written as a series of diary entries, letters, and similar narrative pieces, including original poetry written by the fictional protagonist, which allow her to both describe and reflect upon her experiences. As a novel, Rose Under Fire is an example of how historical fiction can bring insight and understanding to historical events, as it crafts a tale full of foreshadowing, metaphors, and clean endings that are rarely (if ever) found in real life. The story all ties together, with the optimistic beginning leading smoothly and inexorably to a gritty, raw middle, and on to a pensive ending that wraps up all the story’s loose ends while offering hope and the promise of a future.
Not only is Wein an excellent story-crafter, she tells a story that is real even though it is fictional. In her afterward, she asserts that the myriad of details regarding Ravensbruck are based on historical fact – from precisely how German concentration camp officers would address prisoners by their assigned number, to the thickness of the sleeping mattresses. The amount of research that went into this book is evident, and incredible. It is the kind of book that includes not only acknowledgements at the back, but also a bibliography, a list of survivor accounts (including The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom), and internet sources for individuals who want to learn more. This is what it takes to write a good historical fiction novel, and I am duly impressed.
Rose Under Fire is not a pleasant work of fiction, but it is a powerful one. There is strong language in it, as well as the dark and gruesome subject matter itself, and so would be a book I would recommend with caution. While I don’t see myself ever writing in this genre, and rarely read it, Rose Under Fire was well worth the time it took to read its 340 pages.