Historical Fiction by Andrea Cremer
History belongs to us all. The past garners nostalgia, triumph, fury, and despair in equal measures. History unites and divides; enflames passion and instills solemnity. What then does it mean to create a hierarchy within historical narratives? Is there value in deeming one form of historical production greater than another? Are only certain forms of history acceptable in the classroom?
In a recent essay, one of my favorite authors, Jane Smiley, recounted her experience of being ‘condescended to’ by well-known historian Niall Ferguson. The divisive issue between author and scholar was that of narrative; specifically the relative merits of non-fiction and fiction as means for understanding history. While Smiley asserted that the depth of research authors engage in affords them knowledge of their specific subject comparable to that of an academic historian, Ferguson insisted that non-fiction history is truth and therefore of greater value than any novel, no matter how well-researched.
Smiley went on to make a further point: that academic history, like a novel, is a creation – something that historians of Ferguson’s ilk don’t like to acknowledge. And she’s right. Before I turned to full-time novel writing, I was a professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Despite hailing from the ivory tower, my approach to history in my academic publications and in the classroom bore more similarities to Jane Smiley’s view of the discipline than Niall Ferguson’s.
Historians don’t lift evidence from the past in seamless, unblemished pieces. Historical research is often haphazard. It is dusty and musty and very, very messy. Archives are mislabeled, documents misfiled or lost. Some of the most important papers spend years moldering in an attic or basement before they make their way into a library. No matter how diligently historians hunt for materials, there will always be gaps in the record. Holes that must be filled. Scholars are the construction workers who repair those holes in order to make smooth the road of historical narrative. Some like to call that road ‘truth,’ but history itself has taught us that historical ‘truths’ are always changing.
The aims of a novelist differ from those of an academic. Rather than using argumentation and evidence to uncover the past, writers of fiction seek to immerse themselves and their readers in the experience of the past itself. Historical fiction is the closest any of us are likely to come to time travel.
When I set out to write a series of novels set in the past, I approached the topic with trepidation. As a scholar I’d been trained to regard historical fiction with wariness and skepticism at best and at worst, disdain. Though I’d never agreed with that attitude toward novels, it still followed me around like a judgmental specter.
Rather than avoid the ghost of professions past, I decided to tackle the issue head on by committing one of the greatest sins of the discipline – engaging with counterfactuals. Alternate histories are off-putting to those scholars who are committed to history as ‘truth;’ they believe in the study of what is and was, not what ifs.
As an author, the allure of what if lay in its ability to reveal the very heart of history itself – its ability to define national and cultural identities, instill concepts of tradition and heritage, foster loyalty and nurture sentiment. Those traits of history pivot around iconic events and figures. Anchors that keep the present linked to the past.
What if had the makings of the greatest mischief. It allowed me to unmoor the ship of history and set it adrift in the unknown. My own historical research focused on the British North American colonies and early United States history. In The Inventor’s Secret I invited adventure and chaos into a new narrative by doing away with the greatest anchor of all: the success of the American Revolution and subsequent creation of an American republic.
In a world where the War for Independence was lost and the British Empire is on the verge of global dominance, the familiar markers of national culture are absent. No Constitution, no Louisiana Purchase, no Manifest Destiny. The landscape that would have been the United States is a battleground between British and French with the remnants of American patriots operating as insurgents in a desperate attempt to resist British encroachment.
When readers enter this strange territory, it is disorienting. This trip into the past deposits travelers somewhere other than where they expected. However, rather than further alienate them from the history they knew, this new narrative invites a fresh, more critical examination of the original timeline and its cast of characters. What if doesn’t lead inquisitive minds astray by failing to serve up the ‘truth,’ instead it piques curiosity and provokes scrutiny of the differences between fact and fiction. This inherent characteristic of historical fiction demonstrates how a past that never happened can encourage the most compelling historical investigations of all.
Andrea Cremer is a New York Times and international bestselling author. She spent her childhood daydreaming while roaming the forests and lakeshores of Northern Wisconsin. She now lives in Manhattan, but at heart she will always be a small-town girl.
Andrea has always loved writing and has never stopped writing, but it took a horse and a broken foot to prompt her to finally write the novel she’d always dreamed of writing. Prior to becoming a full-time novelist, Andrea resided in the academic world where she taught early modern history.