Thursday, December 31, 2009

Writing the American West as Historical Fiction

<>I’m starting a crusade. I’m trying to inform writers, who think that they write historical fiction, to what constitutes the genre. First, it is not enough to place your story in the last century in a location like the gold mining town of Virginia City, Montana and call it historical fiction. Also, it is not enough to throw in the names of infamous characters from the past, who the author thinks will capture the reader’s attention and imagination. An author who only does the above has not written historical fiction. <>

By and large, it is not the fault of the writer that they might be confused to what constitutes historical fiction. In recent years there has been a renewal in the popularity of the genre, and I think some authors believe identifying their work as historical fiction will give them a leg up in promoting their books. For the most part, they act out of ignorance. A quick search of the internet for a definition of historical fiction proves my point; the definition is varied and confusing. <>

Here are some basic guidelines in writing historical fiction and the things that I look for when I review the genre. If the events in the story take place at least fifty years ago, the story could qualify. But, the key word here is “events.” A good historical fiction author situates the characters and action in their stories in an historical environment where the characters and story line interact with real events on the historical timeline. The story has to be historically accurate. <>

In order for historical fiction to be historically accurate the author should have researched the historical record so that place, people, and events in the historical past are faultlessly correct. For example, if the story takes place in Virginia City, Montana in the nineteenth century, the reader should come away from reading the book with a feel for the gold mining era and the once capital city named by the Southern gentlemen and women. These individuals migrated from the South after the Civil War to regain their wealth in the West. Research of nineteenth century newspapers in and around Virginia City will give the writer a flavor of the town that he or she can relate to the reader. <>

Some of the more popular authors who have successfully written historical fiction about the American West are James Michener, (Centennial and Texas), and Larry McMurtry, (Lonesome Dove). Michener even includes a bibliography with his novels to back up historical accuracy of his story. McMurtry doesn’t provide source material, but historians note that he patterns his characters over men who forged the cattle trails from Texas to Montana in the 1870s. Both of these authors provide the reader with a sense of history about the American West. <>

Historical fiction that is not accurate historically distorts the historical record and fails to teach western history. Instead, the reader will have little sense of the West and the historical legacy.

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