History and Fiction (Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories) by Gillian Polack

This is an academic book, but it’s one that non-academics can read.  And for those of you interested in historical fiction, here’s an opportunity to gain some insight into how some writers of historical fiction approach their writing.  I’ve discovered a few new authors to explore as well.

History and Fiction (Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories) by Gillian Polack

‘Novelists achieve a different understanding of history to historians.’

I can think of a couple of good reasons why I shouldn’t attempt a review of this book.  I’m really not qualified as I’m neither an academic nor an author.  On the other hand, I read a lot of historical fiction, and I’m really interested in what Dr Polack has to say – as both an academic and an author.  Dr Gillian Polack is an historian who also writes both historical and speculative fiction.

‘Writers have a range of choices to make when considering how to apply history to their fiction.’

And the choices that writers make have a significant impact on their readers.  Over nine chapters, Dr Polack touches on a number of different aspects of the intersections between history and fiction.  Some of those intersections include research and world-building, which raises a number of questions.  How do authors research the history relevant to their novels?  How does this influence and shape the worlds they build?  To help address these (and other) questions, Dr Polack interviewed thirty fiction writers.   Their interview responses provide some interesting insights into how each of them approaches the fiction they write.  I’m familiar with some of these authors, and now quite keen to read some of the others mentioned.

‘Writers create fiction from narratives they know.’

I’m one of those who reads historical fiction to get some sense of time, place and person.  I prefer my historical fiction to be (relatively) accurate within known history, but I’m often intrigued by alternative interpretations and presentations.  When I read speculative fiction, I like the worlds I’m reading about to make sense (to be internally congruent) but I’ve been known to ignore that, if the story really grabs my attention.  Reading Dr Polack’s book made me think about these issues, about preferences (mine, the authors, the markets).  Reading Dr Polack’s book has also made me want to pick up some of the books I’ve not yet read.

Yes, this may be an academic work, but I think other readers would also find it an interesting read.

I do have one question, though, for Van Ikin (who wrote the foreword): who is ‘Elizabeth of Aquitaine’?  (Page X) Have I missed a significant historical figure, or is this Eleanor by another name?

Jennifer Cameron-Smith



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