Documentary Novel vs Historical Fiction
Posted on June 17, 2017
by Sue Santiago
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You write about what you already know, right? But, you also write about things you want learn more about. Admittedly, after researching this topic I may be more confused than when I started. Let me see if I can work it out!
The easy part: Historical Fiction
- The setting of the story is historical, a real time and place of years past.
- Characters: Most of the characters are fictional, some may be real
- Plot: Events through the plot will be a blend of true and created.
- Historical: The writer presents historical information accurately.
- Fiction: The plot is the engine of the book, history is secondary, but must be accurate.
- Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson
- The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen
- The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Goodreads has a list of 653 of the Best Children’s Historical Fiction.
The hiccup: (and something I learned in my research!)
In order for a story to be historical fiction, it must be historical to the author. If I were writing a novel set in London 2013 about a girl who desperately wanted to become a nanny for the future king, it would be contemporary fiction right? In twenty years it would still be contemporary fiction from a different time. So the argument then is books like those written by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Laura Ingalls Wilder would not be historical fiction because at the time they were written they were contemporary fiction.
What do you think? Agree? Disagree?
Onto documentary novel – the waters get a little more muddy for me here.
I have seen three different definitions for documentary novel.
1. True event + real people told in a narrative format. (plot, dialogue, characterization)
- From this definition, I have only found one title that keeps appearing, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I have not read this book, so I can not speak accurately to it.
until . . .
- Loving vs Virginia by Patricia Hruby Powell came out in January 2017. And this one I have read. It is written in verse and alternates between the two lead characters, who are historical figures. I spoke to Patricia regarding this book. It is as historically accurate as is possible considering the main characters have both passed away. Through in depth interviews with friends and family she was able to ascertain specific details to the events of the story. The area that the author must take a little liberty is when there is dialogue.
2. A historical fiction novel that includes articles of history within the pages. These may include quotes, advertisements, and the like.
- Countdown by Deborah Wiles is an example of this. Newspaper clippings, advertisements, and quotes are scattered between the chapters.
3. A historical fiction novel in which the format appears like non-fiction articles.
- The title that came up most often for this genre was Nothing but the Truth by Avi. This is written as a series of diary entries, dialogue – as it would be seen in a play, memos. Again, I haven’t read this one, but I am curious and it’s made my list of books to read.
What kind are you writing? Historical fiction or documentary novel? How do you know?
Category: Writer's CraftTags: Avi, Charles Dickens, children's literature, Children's writer, Christopher Paul Curtis, contemporary fiction, Countdown, Deborah Wiles, fever 1793, historical fiction, In Cold Blood, Jane Austen, Jane Yolen, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Laurie Halse Anderson, Loving vs Virginia, Nothing but the Truth, Patricia Hruby Powell, Sue Santiago, The Devil's Arithmetic, The Watson's Go to Birmingham - 1963, Truman Capote