History versus Historical Fiction

I just finished listening to a new novel by Emma Bull called Territory.  It’s a historical fantasy novel that takes place in Tombstone, Arizona during the legendary year of 1881.  Now I have read many non-fiction books about Wyatt Earp, read many fictional accounts, and I have seen most of the major film stories about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. corral.   Territory was entertaining enough that I wanted to stay plugged into my iPod every free moment last week.  Part of this is due to my love of the Tombstone myth, and part due to a good story with good characters.  The narrators were excellent.

Emma Bull seems to know most of the essential facts and speculation about the famous event, and she invents new theories about the how and why of the known facts, especially about the stagecoach holdup on March 15, 1881.  What she does different is add fantasy elements to the story, and I don’t mean she makes up false accusations, but adds fantasy, as in magic, to the storyline.  I love fictional accounts of real people, and I love a good fantasy story that uses famous people for characters, like Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld stories, which featured Mark Twain (Sam Clemens) and Sir Richard Burton.  In Riverworld there was no attempt to recreate an actual historical event, whereas Territory does build a plot around “true” events, so in that regards it attempts to be realistic.

Emma Bull stays on the periphery of the most famous characters, dealing more with the Earp wives and Big Nose Kate, than with the Wyatt Earp & brothers, except for Doc Holliday, who is one of three point-of-view characters.  The other two are fictional POV characters, Jesse Fox and Mrs. Mildred Benjamin.  I think this was a good choice – too many of the Tombstone stories follow the Earps, and seeing history from the sidelines is a good vantage point.

Now I don’t know about the magic element.  I suppose if you’re a fantasy writer you always feel compelled to throw fantasy elements into your writing recipe, but this story could stand strong and tall without magic.  In fact, I think with more history and less fantasy it would have been a better novel of any type.  Obviously, Ms. Bull mined Tombstone’s history for rich historical ore and found plenty to refine.  Her addition of magic creates a non-historical plot thread but that hole in history is also later plugged by the same magic.

There are two types of historical novels – the authentic and the romantic.  Now the romantic historical novel can be very realistic to its time, but it’s ultimate goal is to tell a fun story, often with made-up characters.  Of course, the authentic historical novel seeks to recreate everything as realistic as possible, matching all known facts, and often focuses on real people from the past.  Both are fantasies in essence, because non-fiction history is a kind of fantasy too.  Even our own personal memories are fantasies.  I think when science fiction readers got tired of space opera, many genre writers turned to fantasy, and in recent times, turned to blending historical fiction with science fiction and fantasy.  Readers and movie fans often love a good costume drama, so I think this type of story is growing in popularity.

Territory is a lightweight romantic historical fantasy that entertains with quite a few good facts.  Readers unfamiliar with the Tombstone myths of 1881 can still follow the story, but I’m not sure if they can really enjoy it like it should be read.   Tombstone of 1881 was about law and order, Republicans versus Democrats, American West mythology, guns versus gun control, survival of the fittest, greed, revenge, murder, love, redemption, and every element of a great story.  Shakespeare would have loved the material, and could have written a play more complex than Hamlet with the famous ambiguous characters of Tombstone.  That’s why the story gets filmed so much and used for background for novels.

The most interesting speculation Emma Bull conjures regards the stage holdup and its motivation on Wyatt Earp for later events.  Most of the glamorous stories about Wyatt Earp make him into a frontier hero, but if you dig deep you know that he was involved on both sides of the law.  I wished that Emma Bull had jettisoned the fantasy elements to make more room for the story to be an authentic historical novel because she showed a lot of talent for that, and I also wish she had even added fifty-percent more to her word count.  I think having Mildred Benjamin be a typesetter and cub reporter was enough of a fantasy element for this story.  Her current approach to this classic western is what I would call Deadwood PG.

Overall, I enjoyed this story, but ended up wanting more.  Of course, the additional words I want might bore the average reader, because I’d like to see a lot more history and facts painted into the story.  Really great authentic historical fiction makes the reader feel like they are walking through the past.  Every significant detail adds to the beauty of the work, and you feel like you are learning from first-hand experience.  What really sets off the feeling of reality is the voice of the characters and narrator.  Ms. Bull throws in quite a few archaic words and phrases from the time, but her characters have the tainted feel of the modern mind.  It’s never obvious, but I kept asking myself would a person from 1881 think or say that.

Authentic voice is very hard to pull off.  One way to test modern historical fiction for voice is to compare it to works of fiction written from the time period, but to go even deeper, you have to compare the modern sound to letters and diaries of the time.  It’s not just the period vocabulary, but the popular phrases, topics of interests, the pop culture of the time, common philosophical opinions and so on.  Territory doesn’t go very deep in this regard.

Unfortunately, there is no Pride and Prejudice or Sister Carrie quality novel written by someone who lived during the time in the old west.  About the closest thing we have is Roughing It by Mark Twain, written about ten years earlier about his 1861-1867 trip out west seeking his fortune in a Nevada silver mining camp.  Of course, this might be like learning about contemporary France from the essays of David Sedaris.  Another source is Isabella Bird, who traveled through the Rocky Mountains in 1873 and wrote about her adventures in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.  

The true western novel didn’t evolved until well after the west was tamed, and in many ways western fiction is often more fantasy fiction than historical fiction.  If you really want to know about Tombstone you need to read non-fiction books like Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra.  The trouble is, reading one book is like eating one chocolate chip cookie.  That’s the thing about history and historical fiction – you run the chance of getting bit by the what-really-happened bug.   Emma Bull takes a particularly strange photo of Wyatt Earp that shows a sinister evil side.  If you read wide enough you’ll find Wyatt Earp detractors who will back this view, but is it the correct take?  You’ll have to read about six history books to get a decent idea.


3 thoughts on “History versus Historical Fiction”

  1. I too enjoy historical characters in fiction. One of the things I loved about the first four books in Carole Nelson Douglas’ Irene Adler series was that she incorporated real people like Sarah Bernhardt and Bram Stoker into her works.

    Territory has been on my radar for some time. Emma Bull is one of the group of writers that I group in with the other mythopoeic authors involved with Terri Windling’s Endicott Studio. I tend to really like the work of folks within this circle and I imagine that I will really enjoy Territory whenever I get around to reading it.

  2. I have always felt that historical fiction offers much of the same sense of wonder as much science fiction (the future history type), so it is not surprising that many of us readers enjoy both genres and many writers produce both.

    If you’re interested, at my blog I posted an article “Historical Fiction as the Reflection of SF Across the Time Axis” on 4/1/06.


  3. Bob, I jumped over to your April 2006 posts and read the one about Historical Fiction. I’m an Andrea Barrett fan too, but except for her I haven’t read any of the other historical novels you mentioned. I’ll have to start exploring more.

    I liked your idea of comparing science fiction and historical fiction. I’ve always thought of reading SF as exploring all the possible future histories of Earth. It’s too bad Blogger doesn’t let you link to individual posts in your archive – but people can find it here http://visionsofparadise.blogspot.com/2006_04_01_archive.html and then scrolling down.

    I think you make a good case comparing science fiction and historical fiction. I think both appeal to the urge to seek out and explore exotic lands and learn about strange new cultures. I also jumped to your current postings where you talk about categories of science fiction. I think there is some overlap of ideas here too with historical fiction.

    Some historical fiction can be literary and other plot driven (or a combination). To me literary has the feel of autobiography – that as a reader I’m getting inside someone’s mind and life. Whereas the genre novel is more about ideas, plots, details, philosophy, etc. I think this division works with all kinds of books.

    Most science fiction has poor character development, which is why it is often condemned by literary types. I think The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell had the literary character development and a basic SF genre plot drive. Now, you didn’t believe it was up to the idea standards of normal SF, but I disagree. I thought The Sparrow blew away A Case of Conscience on all levels. Sure it was just another first contact story, but it explore ideas of religion in a far more intelligent and deep way than Blish. I think it also explored deeper into the nature of alien thinking too.

    Sadly, the Blish book is almost unreadable today, and I’m not sure if it’s even in print. I’ve seen reviews by lots of non-SF fans who loved The Sparrow. It’s a powerful book because it’s character driven. It’s not about plot at all.

    I think the reason why hordes of non-SF fans love Ender’s Game is because it’s so character driven.

    I think in comparing SF and historical fiction, and the categories of writing, character driven stories will have more impact and last longer than plot driven stories. I once bought several issues of 1928 Amazings, and the stories were terrible. The ideas were still entertaining and even still worthy of consideration, but the stories themselves were silly.

    I think the reason why I love the Heinlein stories from the 1950s is because they were character driven, and the reason why I hate the later Heinlein stories is because they were idea driven.

    I just tried to read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. I hated it because it was idea driven. I switched to Drop City by T. C. Boyle, another book about the 1960s and I’m loving it because it’s character driven.

    So that’s how I’ve come to divide SF fiction stories, and genres like historical fiction.

    Another whole essay to explore would be the faults of literary writing. Just being character driven doesn’t make a book perfect or readable either. Most people’s lives are boring. People want to read about what they don’t know. I haven’t read Pillars of the Earth, but I know it’s massively loved. I’ll bet it’s strongly character driven but full of fascinating ideas and details.


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