History and Fiction: Writers, Their Research, Worlds and Stories

Written by Gillian Polack
Review by Sarah Johnson

Authors incorporate history into their fiction in a variety of ways, and to different degrees, depending on the genre they’re writing, their personal views of the past, the needs of their narrative, the demands of the marketplace, and more. The writer of a fantasy novel set in a romantic Arthurian world won’t approach history in the same way as an author of fact-based biographical fiction set in the early Middle Ages; both will likely emphasize different aspects of the past than a historian of the period would.

In this book, Gillian Polack, an Australian medieval historian who writes both historical and speculative fiction, serves as an expert guide to the complex relationship that fiction writers have with history. “The role of the fiction writer in exploring history, in creating new interpretations and in exploring old ones, cannot be underestimated,” she writes, showing fiction’s relevance and value, and explaining how authors’ choices affect readers’ understanding of historical events. Over nine chapters, she touches on different facets of the complex history-fiction interface, including the research process, world-building, authors’ establishment of credibility, story development, and how genre choices and publishers’ editorial decisions can influence how history is presented.

Polack’s analysis of this fertile research area is underpinned by her in-depth interviews with thirty fiction writers, primarily those who employ medieval history. Elizabeth Chadwick, Kathleen Cunningham Guler, Felicity Pulman, Helen Hollick, and Chaz Brenchley are among the authors included. Their responses (which are wonderfully candid) add additional context. Particularly insightful are the authors’ comments about the emotional relationships they have with history. Polack also discusses novelists’ cultural and ethical responsibilities, the concept of transparency with regard to fiction, and the issues that arise when novelists rely on popular images of history or their own assumptions (examples are given). It’s important, as she states, for us to realize that the market plays a big role in deciding which historical interpretations are heard and valued above others.

This study will be an essential read for genre scholars, but the accessible writing style extends its appeal beyond academic circles. Historical novelists can consult it for deeper insight into their own writing and research choices, while anyone curious about how authors bring the past to life through fiction will come away with considerable knowledge of what goes into the crafting of the novels they enjoy.