*This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote as I pursue my MFA in creative writing at the University of Tampa.
During my first semester at UT, I read “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr and “The Name of the Rose” by Umberto Eco. My goal in studying these novels was to begin to dissect what is historical fiction, what are the elements that make up a historical novel, and why I wish to write in this genre. As I am dedicating my time at UT to studying the historical novel, this annotation is the beginning of my exploration into how I can be the best historical novelist possible. Reading these two books has been an excellent addition to my journey.
The novels addressed different time periods and took place over different lengths of time. “Light” was non-stop action. Doerr did not waste a word in his novel; every word, every phrase, and every description held meaning. On the other hand, “Rose” tarried along. Eco rambled and filled the pages with exposition. These are not judgments but rather lessons I absorbed.
Plot Summaries (spoiler alert)
All the Light We Cannot See
Marie-Laure is a French girl who goes blind due to cataracts. Werner Pfennig is a German orphan who is a whiz in science and math. "Light" begins on the verge of WWII and covers Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives before and during the war, as well as Marie-Laure’s life post-war.
Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father who is a locksmith at the Museum of Natural History. He helps Marie-Laure cope with her blindness by exposing her to smells and touches, by teaching her to trust her instincts, by buying her Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” in braille, and by building her a wooden replica of their neighborhood to study with her hands so she can learn to navigate the streets.
A magical blue diamond called the Sea of Flames is part of the collection at the Museum of Natural History. Per legend, the Sea of Flames may hurt or protect those who hold it in her possession. When Marie-Laure and her father must flee Paris, her father carries the Sea of Flames with him.
Marie-Laure and her father go to Saint-Malo where Marie-Laure’s great uncle Etienne and his housekeeper Madame Manec reside. In Saint-Malo, her father builds her a wooden model of Saint-Malo and hides the blue diamond inside the replica of Etienne’s home. Marie-Laure’s father is summoned back to the museum in Paris and promises his daughter he will return.
Later, with Madame Manec dead and Etienne missing, Marie-Laure is alone in her great uncle’s home. Colonel von Rumpel, an ailing Nazi soldier willing to kill to recover the Sea of Flames, enters the home and searches for the blue diamond. Marie-Laure hides in the attic and reads from Jules Verne’s novel over Etienne’s radio to ease her fears.
Along with his sister Jutta, Werner grows up in an orphanage in the countryside of Germany. Werner finds a radio and he and his sister spend many nights curled around the transistor, comforted by listening to an unknown man read stories from an unknown location. Werner dreams of becoming a scientist but at fifteen years old will be required to work in the local coal mine. To avoid this fate, he accepts enrollment at a Nazi school. At the school, he gains notoriety and favoritism for his ability to repair radios. He meets Volkheimer, a giant of a boy who becomes Werner’s friend.
Werner is thrust into the war, fixes radios, follows signals, and identifies targets for the Nazis to bomb. When encrypted and enemy messages are discovered from a radio in Saint-Malo, Werner, Volkheimer, and their small troop travel to Saint-Malo to find the perpetrator. They arrive on the eve of the town being bombed.
Over the radio, Werner hears the same man he and his sister used to listen to when they were in the orphanage. He doesn’t tell Volkheimer as he doesn’t wish for whomever has the radio to be harmed. Then, he hears Marie-Laure reading from Jules Verne’s novel, as well as her plea when she says, “he’s here” referring to Colonel von Rumpel who is in her home and means to harm her.
Werner rushes to Etienne’s home, kills von Rumpel, and helps Marie-Laure escape. They take the wooden model of Etienne’s home in Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s father had hidden the blue diamond, and hide the house and the diamond in an ocean grotto.
Werner and Marie-Laure separate to ensure better success of survival. Marie-Laure safely reunites with her great uncle, Etienne. Marie-Laure and her great uncle move back to Paris where Marie-Laure begins school.
The allies, on the other hand, capture Werner. While imprisoned, Werner becomes ill and delirious and wanders into a field where he trips a mine and is killed by the explosion.
Years later, Volkheimer is given Werner’s belongings, which include the wooden model of Etienne’s home in Saint-Malo. Volkheimer brings them to Jutta who goes to Paris to meet Marie-Laure. Jutta gives her the wooden model of Etienne’s home, empty of the diamond, and Marie-Laure wonders what Werner did with the Sea of Flames. The narrator tells the reader that Werner had thrown it in the grotto, but Marie-Laure has no way of knowing this. She is left with the memory of that difficult time, and of the boy who had saved her life.
The Name of the Rose
The elderly monk Adso of Melk narrates this historical novel. He tells of what occurred during a one-week period in 1327 when he was a young monk and a scribe that accompanied William of Baskerville, a British Franciscan, to a Benedictine abbey in northern Italy. At the abbey, there is dissension within the Franciscan order. One group, the Spiritualists, favors ecclesiastical poverty while another group within the order fear a vow of poverty will diminish the church’s power. William of Baskerville is sent to the abbey to mediate a meeting between the factions and to try and reach resolution between the two sides.
When William and Adso arrive at the abbey, they learn the monk Adelmo has died by falling out a window. William, who has proven to be gifted with logical prowess, questions if Adelmo’s death was accident, suicide or murder. Abo, the abbot, wishes to have this matter resolved before the rest of the delegates arrive for the meeting of the Franciscan order, and so asks William to investigate. Soon, more bodies turn up. Venantius is discovered with his head in a pail of pig’s blood. Berengar drowned in a bath. William believes the three deaths are murders that follow a pattern laid out in the Apocalypse in the book of Revelations. He seeks to enter the abbey’s forbidden library to find clues to the murders.
Through patience and deduction, William discovers an elderly blind monk, Jorge of Burgos, was responsible for the murders. Venerable Jorge believed comedy and laughter was the work of the devil. His weapon was poison, which he used to taint the pages of a book of comedy. Those who read the book would lick their fingers and then turn a page. All the victims had black marks on their fingers and on their tongues from this action. William used this evidence to solve the crimes.
Among other lessons, William and Adso learn that the secular and the non-secular intersect, inside and outside the abbey walls.
What is Historical Fiction?
The simplest definition of historical fiction is a story told in the past, either wholly or in parts. The genre pays attention to settings, mannerisms, culture, society, and news events of a previous time. I have read articles that state for a novel to be considered historical it must take place at least fifty years in the past. To some readers, such as myself, a novel about the Beatles' arrival in the United States feels less historical than a novel that takes place during WWII. However, my eighty-six-year-old friend who survived the Korean War might not feel a novel set during that war is historical, while I certainly would. As such, what makes a novel historical is subjective, and therefore there are many contradictions within the field as to what is a historical novel. This includes disagreement among writers, readers, publishers, agents and editors.
To further complicate decoding an answer to the question, What is historical fiction, another query must be considered: Is Grapes of Wrath, which John Steinbeck published in 1939 and that covers a period during the Great Depression, historical fiction? In other words, if Mr. Steinbeck wrote the novel during the period he is writing about, does that make the novel historical? Perhaps the answer is that a novel about the Depression, written during the Depression, is only considered historical fiction decades later. Does that mean popular novels such as John Grisham’s books will be considered historical fiction when read in 2050?
The Historical Novels Review, Historical Novel Society’s magazine, defines historical fiction as “a novel that is set fifty or more years in the past, and one in which the author is writing from research rather than personal experience.” Does that mean if someone were to write about the Beatles' invasion of America in February 1964, and they had attended their live studio performance on the Ed Sullivan show at that time, that their novel would not qualify as historical?
I would further suggest that a novel written today and based in the 1970s, before computers and iPhones, is such a significantly different time socially and culturally, and the technical landscape so diverse from today, that it could be considered historical.
Is it necessary to define the genre? Like every novel, story telling is paramount. Structure, plotting, characterizations, and weaving a good and exciting tale are what matters. If the reader is entertained and receives a history lesson at the same time, all the better.
"All the Light We Cannot See" and "The Name of the Rose" are unquestionably historical novels. "Light" spans decades from before the start of WWII when Marie-Laure was a pre-teen until the end of the novel when she is in a park with her grandson some eighty years later. "Rose" covers a one-week period in 1327. Both authors faithfully recreate their respective time periods, including the dress and mannerisms of the people, the cultures, and the politics and happenings of the day.
It’s important to note when examining what is historical fiction that specificity is vital. Doerr does not present us with any young girl in Paris in the 1930s. Rather, he draws us into the world of a specific young girl in Paris during specific days and based on her specific experiences. He uses her senses to convey her world, her needs, and her fears as the safe world she had grown accustomed to disappears.
Eco achieves the same. In "Rose", he does not create a general world of monks in 1327. Instead, he creates a specific world of specific monks in one abbey in northern Italy during a time of dispute among the Franciscan order.
To write historical fiction is not just picking a time, such as the Wild West, and throwing in dusty saloons and buffalo rifles, or writing about the Italian Renaissance and a sulking Michelangelo looking toward the cracked and moldy ceiling of the Sistine Chapel before he begins to paint. The sensibilities and the speech of the people and the period must be authentic and detailed. No corners may be cut. The wild west cowboy who sashays into a saloon with a buffalo rifle over his shoulder must be dressed true for the times, must speak for the times, and must even smell for the times. Michelangelo too, when he hesitated about the job he reluctantly accepted to paint the Sistine Chapel, must feel apprehension appropriate to the times he lived in. As an example, I can go to the store and buy paint (or better yet I can order it from Amazon and have it delivered) but Michelangelo had to make his own.
The historical fiction genre might not be definable, but it might not need to be defined. Its definition might vary from person to person based on each experience. However, as a challenge to myself, I offer the following definition of the historical novel:
A historical novel takes place during a past time that is significantly socially and culturally different than the current age, and that mixes fact and fiction in such a way that the reader wonders if the fiction is fact, and the fact is fiction.
The Elements that Make Up a Historical Novel
Historical novels must contain all the elements of any good novel such as plotting, character development, theme, setting, point of view and conflict. It is not enough to only set the book during the 1812 French invasion of Russia as in Tolstoy’s "War and Peace", or to set it during Anna Karenina’s day. Theodore Roosevelt’s appearance in Carr’s "The Alienist" alone is not enough to label that novel historical. One location or one real person is not sufficient to make up this genre; in fact, having only one factual thing in a historical novel feels like a gimmick as opposed to a necessary plot mechanism. Factual time periods, actual settings and realistic situations are essential parts to the historical novel, along with employment of the five senses from that day. What did they hear, smell, taste, see and feel? These are the touches that make historical fiction a special and unique genre. Techniques used by Doerr and Eco that make their novels huge successes and worthy professors for writers like me.
Along with the elements required of any novel, I offer these seven elements to make up a historical novel:
1. Authenticity: The novel must be true to all aspects of the period for real and fictionalized events, characters, settings, sensibilities, etc.
2. Specificity. The worlds created (or recreated), the people, the time, and the locations must be specifically defined and not generalized.
3. Research: The author must learn about the people and the period through data, newspaper articles, Internet research (while being skeptical of what is learned on the Internet), and from nonfiction and fiction books, and other methods, and then must impart that on to the page in a unique and dramatic way.
4. Don’t include everything you learn: The author must learn all she can about the historical topic (see Research above) but is not to include all the information in her novel. What is left in is as important as what is left out.
5. Do not underestimate readers: Readers are savvy. Authors must not cut corners when it comes to recreating the period, people of the day, and so forth.
6. Do not judge characters based on today’s standards: The historical novelist must remember that what was acceptable yesterday might not be acceptable today. Therefore, all issues must be treated in a way true to the time. For example, parental expectations of young girls in the eighteenth century are different than parental expectations of them today.
7. Patience: Writing historical novels require all the elements of good fiction, as well as accurate depictions of the time period, of the society, and of its people. To get it right, takes time. Be patient. As an example, Doerr took ten years to write "All the Light We Cannot See".
Historical Fiction Today
I asked Sarah Johnson, a professor and reference librarian at Eastern Illinois University, book review editor of the Historical Novels Review, and the author of two books on the genre of historical fiction, what her thoughts were on the definition of historical fiction today. She stated, "...the 50-year wall has moved forward to the mid-to-late 1960s, and novels set in the ‘40s are considered historical fiction by most if not all readers now. I’ve been at a historical fiction conference over the last few days, and this exact question was asked at a session – even readers born in the ‘30s agreed that the ‘40s could be called “history.” ...The success and critical acclaim of novels like "Wolf Hall" and, more recently, Anthony Doerr’s "All the Light We Cannot See" have contributed to (current popularity of historical novels)."
Conclusion: Why Write Historical Fiction?
To create good fiction is hard, adding the requirement of being faithful to a time and the people who lived during that time is harder. Why do it? It’s certainly not to seek fame and fortune since if they were my goals I’d write porn or vampire novels, or better yet, vampire porn.
I write historical fiction because I am selfish. Novel writing is difficult and arduous, weaving in historical context adds to the challenge. However, for me, combining two of my passions—writing and history—makes writing historical fiction a labor of love.
Works Cited and Consulted
Doerr, Anthony. All the Light We Cannot See: A Novel. London: Fourth Estate, 2015. Print.
Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. Print.
Johnson, Sarah. Defining the Genre: What are the rules for historical fiction? 2002. Print article.