Whose History Is It, Anyway?

“History is so subjective. The teller of it determines it.” —Lin-Manuel Miranda

Truer words were never spoken…sort of. Many historical fiction authors are in the enviable position of having no one (the random historian notwithstanding) to dispute their tales. I’ve even read that one author of centuries-ago historical fiction claims her characters spoke to her from the grave, insisting their stories be told. That’s a lucky writer, having a ready-made narrative handed to her by ghosts.

Authors of near-history (or not-so-historical) fiction don’t have this luxury. Because the thing about near-history (defined roughly as the middle of the 20th century) is that a lot of people—folks who are not yet in their graves — have some pretty distinct memories of it. Not to mention considerably strong opinions on the subject.

For evidence, read reviews of any near-history novel. Take, for example, Emma Cline’s well-hyped 2016 novel The Girls, set in northern California in 1969 and loosely based on the Manson murders. Reader reviews are mixed — and perhaps this is, at least in part, due to readers’ experiences (or not) with the real-life events that form the basis for this book. To paraphrase one reviewer: maybe you had to live through the shock and horror of those murders, watching nightly on TV, reading newspaper accounts as details unfolded, to have anticipated more depth in Cline’s retelling of the story.

But if there’s one thing near-history teaches us, it’s that nobody has a corner on the market of memory. Another reviewer put it this way (again, paraphrased): against the backdrop of a famous and horrifying incident, The Girls utterly captured a young woman’s coming of age in the late 1960s and made the reviewer recall moments in her own youth.

What does this mean for writers of near-history? It means they must go beyond getting an eons-ago story relatively straight. Not only the details, but also the emotion of the time period, must be spot-on.

So how do you do that? Where do you start? When and how do you research? In the interest of creating a compelling narrative, can you fabricate? And if so, how much?

These are weighty questions, without simple answers. As a near-history author, you can expect to work through numerous revisions as you strive for not only historical accuracy but also precision in tone, dialogue, and character. Regardless of whether your novel is based on events that really happened or it’s entirely imagined, you’ll have to think about who already “knows” this story…because someone inevitably will.

This work is daunting but exciting—and ultimately rewarding. When mature readers say they love your novel—when they thank you for getting it right—and when younger readers talk about how you’ve inspired them, you’ll know you’ve told near-history well.

We’ll be discussing this topic further in my Lit Fest craft session Researching and Writing Not-So-Historical Fiction on June 12th. Please join us!

Cynthia Swanson is the New York Times bestselling author of two near-history novels, The Glass Forest (Simon & Schuster, 2018) and The Bookseller (HarperCollins, 2015), which is soon to be a movie starring Julia Roberts. Cynthia has published short fiction in numerous journals and been a Pushcart Prize nominee. Find her at cynthiaswansonauthor.com.

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