Musings: Historical Fiction Vs. Non-Fiction History

I’ve always been a history buff.  My favorite time period has long been World War II, mostly because I have always wanted to know what drives people to treat others in such an awful way.  (This motivation is probably the reasoning behind my career choice of international development as well.)  The problem is that the vast majority of non-fiction history books are so dry they put me to sleep within pages.

Hence historical fiction: all of the history, none of the boredom! – more or less, anyway.  Historical fiction runs the gamut from “well-researched story about real people that invents stuff” to “random plot set in a historical period.” It has the advantage of taking real people and real events – usually very exciting stuff – and having an excuse to make it absorbing and real.

The best non-fiction history books do this, too.  Peter Hopkirk, for example, has a true knack for bringing historical figures back to life using just facts.  However, much of his work deals with the British Empire in the 1800s – a time with better records and the height of dashing heroes.  As an author struggles with poor or destroyed records, it becomes harder to flesh out characters without resorting to a bit of fiction.  At this point, history just becomes a list of facts, battles, and notable personages.  My current non-fiction exploration, Weir’s Wars of the Roses occasionally struggles with this, despite the rather good records that exist for the period.  Luckily, the drama and intrigues of the wars are just too good to not become engrossed.

One book that had the full potential to be fascinating and exciting, but is instead rather dry, is William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Shirer was a journalist in Germany throughout much of the buildup, knew many of the main players and yet he sticks to the (exhaustive) records and minute details rather than allowing the story to build.  It is, nonetheless, a fascinating account.

As for fiction, Philippa Gregory’s histories of the Tudors are rather good – The Other Boleyn Girl, her best-known, is fantastic, although it’s sequel suffers.  For good period books, try Lauren Willig’s Secret History of the Pink Carnation series – part romance novel, part historical fiction, part diary, they are totally addictive.  Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series is mostly historical fiction, with time-travel and romance novel thrown in for good measure.  The first two installments are well done, but the later books in the series loose their flow and become episodic and confused.

As with any genre, history can be very, very good or very, very boring.  It’s all about the presentation.  But the certitude of events reported – battles, adventures, love stories – really happened can elevate even the most mundane book of facts to an escape from today’s reality.

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One thought on “Musings: Historical Fiction Vs. Non-Fiction History

  1. Thanks for the tip on Shirer's Third Reich. I have always wondered if I should read it. If you, who love WWII didn't like it then it must be pretty dry. I remember liking his book about Ghandi, but I was in my teens when I read it without much to compare it to.

    Keep the posts coming!

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