E. Paul Bergeron

Writing Historical Fiction

We must first ask ourselves the question, how far into the past does a writer need to go to be defined as an historical fiction writer. If we write about Genghis Khan, who started the Mongol invasions in the twelfth century, or the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, in 1815. We know these events would be classified as historical fiction. But how about the perils of prohibition, or the assassination of President Kennedy? How far removed from today does our story need to be?

Perhaps a definition of historical fiction is in order. H. Scott Dalton defines it as “a fictional story in which elements of history, be they persons, events, or settings, play a role.
He also breaks the definition down into four parts:

1. Depictions of real historical figures in the context of the challenges they faced.
2. Depictions of real historical figures in imagined situations.
3. Depictions of fictional characters in documented historical situations.
4. Depictions of fictional characters in fictional situations, but in the context of a real historical period.

In my novel, “The Search for Diego,” I have my main character, William MacLeod, travelling through an area in central California, in 1824, the exact time when the Chumash Indians did, in fact, revolt. A mission guard at the Santa Iñes Mission killed a young Indian. Two thousand Chumash Indians gathered and attacked the mission, they followed up by attacking the missions of Santa Bárbara and La Purísima, before being subdued.

Do I ignore the event, even though it is taking place at the same time and in the same general location as my story, but has no relationship to the story? Do I make a passing reference to it, or do I attempt to involve my character in it?

If the historical setting is nothing more than a backdrop to my plot, perhaps then I can follow along with what H. Scott Dalton again says. The historian seeks to answer the question “What happened?” The writer of historical fiction seeks to explain “What was it like?”

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Sincerely, E. Paul Bergeron


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