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Nine Breeds of Historical Fiction

[This piece first appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books]

Historical fiction is flourishing, and its advantages are many. For readers, it combines the familiar with the unknown, as novelists imagine the motivations and thoughts of historical figures. For writers, it provides grounding. Certain characters are already known and even defined. Better yet, the real world produces the most improbable characters. What fiction writer would dare create a character so complex and powerful as Abraham Lincoln? Yet historical fiction comes in many flavors. Here, for starters, are nine:

Straight-up. Like Shakespeare’s history plays, some historical fiction offers a straightforward imagining of an event through real and fictional characters, placing the reader in the center of it. Because the novelist can supply characters’ thoughts and motivations, not to mention entertaining dialogue, the resulting story often goes down more smoothly than historical narratives, which cannot stray from the facts. That was certainly true for Michael Shaara’s brilliant rendering of the Battle of Gettysburg in The Killer Angelsor E.L. Doctorow’s retelling of the Dutch Schultz gangster story in Billy Bathgate.

Inside-out. Some historical novelists take the heroes and scoundrels of history and flip them. Hilary Mantel’s smashing success with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies begins with her audacious suggestion that St. Thomas More was a narrow-minded, mealy-mouthed cleric, while his antagonist — the oft-reviled Thomas Cromwell — was a statesman of vision and integrity. Gore Vidal employed this gambit repeatedly. His Burr celebrates the duelist and alleged traitor, while Hollywood portrays Warren G. Harding as a shrewd and wise political leader, and 1876 plumps for the excellence of President Ulysses Grant.

Upside-down. Some novelists refuse to settle for reinterpreting history: they change it, opening readers’ minds to the what-might-have-beens. Often called “alternative history,” these include Stephen L. Carter’s intriguing The Impeachment of Abraham Lincolnwhich wonders how things might have turned out if Lincoln had survived the bullet at Ford’s Theatre. Robert Harris’ Fatherland imagines a Europe after Nazi victory in World War II. In The Plot Against America, Philip Roth asked what America would have become if Charles Lindbergh had run for — and won — the presidency in 1940.

The Rosencrantz Maneuver. First popularized by Tom Stoppard in his takeoff of “Hamlet,” “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” this maneuver exalts a bit player in a large drama, simultaneously cutting the heroes down to size and offering readers a new window into the story. In The Blood of HeavenKent Wascom intriguingly reworked the Aaron Burr story (that man again) through the eyes of the brothers Kemper, who are only occasionally remembered for raising hell in the short-lived Spanish colony of West Florida.

Historical Mysteries. Pioneered by Josephine Tey, these books set fictional characters on the trail of an historical mystery, often from another era. In Tey’sThe Daughter of Timea Scotland Yard detective in 1950 unravels the mystery of the 1483 murder of the underage King Edward V in the Tower of London. My own effort, The Lincoln Deceptionsets a pair of mismatched investigators on the trail of the John Wilkes Booth conspirators and whoever was behind them.

Historical Crime-Fighters. A popular breed of historical novel places the crime thriller back in time, with a key historical figure at the center. Louis Bayard’s The Pale Blue Eye explores a murder in New York City that includes the struggling Edgar Allan Poe, while Daniel Stashower’s Harry Houdini Mysteries uses the magician and escape artist to solve baffling crimes.

Novelists’ Wives. There’s no denying the recent spate of books telling the interior stories of those long-suffering women yoked to writer-husbands. There’sThe Paris Wife by Paula McLain (Hemingway), and three about Zelda Fitzgerald: Therese Anne Fowler’s ZR. Clifton Spargo’s Beautiful Foolsand Erika Robuck’s Call Me Zelda.

The Grand Sweep.  These are the wrist-breakers, the door-stoppers, that purport to tell you everything you might possibly want to know about a nation, region, or city.  Edward Rutherfurd’s London and Paris.  James Michener’s Poland and Texas and Chesapeake. From one generation to the next, often-wooden characters from a single family land repeatedly in the center of pivotal events.  Not often done well.  [Thanks to M.K. Tod for noting the importance of this breed.]

Fictional Historical Fiction (Historical Fiction Fiction?). An impressive range of novelists place their stories in someone else’s novel — that is, the author borrows the setting and characters of the first novel and vamps on it. Jane Austen is so regularly honored (and pillaged) in this fashion that one website puts out an annual list of the “Top 20 Jane Austen-Inspired Books.” In March,Geraldine Brooks followed the wartime career of the long-absent father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, while Ahab’s Wife, by Sena Jeter Naslund, imagines the story of the stay-at-home wife of Melville’s unforgettable ship captain.

So, which breeds have I missed?

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