What exactly is historical fiction?

October 2012

I’m a little puzzled by what is and is not considered historical fiction. I certainly understand why people consider Thomas, A Secret Life as historical fiction. It’s fiction and it’s set in an imagined 18th-century world. Yet many other novels similarly set in the past do not seem to be so labelled. Are not Leo MacKay Jr.’s Twenty Six and Donna Morrisey’s novels set in Newfoundland out-ports a generation or two ago — or for that matter any story set in London, California or anywhere else in the 1930s or 1960s — not historical fictions as well? Who makes the call and where is the line? Does the historical fiction label mean a novel is set a couple of centuries ago and not in the more recent past?

My opinion is that historical fiction is not a genre at all. It’s just a detail of when and where the story is set. It’s not — or should not be — the defining characteristic of the work. My aim with Thomas is to explore the many shifting moral compasses people have as they go through life. I try to make the historical period come alive as authentically as I can, but ultimately those details are incidental to the story I’m seeking to tell.

History versus Fiction

October 2012

Since I now write both, I’ve had people ask me about the difference between the two. The shortest answer I can think of is: History tells the story from the outside, while Fiction shows it from the inside. One is not better than the other. It depends on what you want.

On writing

October 2012

I used to think everyone wanted to write books. The naïvété of youth, I suppose. To think that everyone thinks along the same lines as you.

For me, writing is the best way I know to organize my thoughts. I don’t even know what I really think about something until I begin to write. The very act of putting down (then re-arranging and altering) words on a page (or more often on a screen) is how I think best. The opaque becomes clear, or at least it sometimes does. That was how it was when I sought to write history — trying to weigh the evidence and give it a narrative thrust — and it’s how it is with fiction, though with novels it’s trying to see and hear characters in different scenes and bring them to life.

Un petit mot aux Francophones

October 2012

Même si mon site est essentiellement en anglais, n’hésitez pas à me contacter en français si vous voulez (en utilisant Reader’s Turn).

By the way

October 2012

On 20 October 2012, the “Voice of the People” section of the Halifax Chronicle Herald published this letter from me.

I am intrigued by the federal government’s intention to re-cast the Canadian Museum of Civilization and give it a focus on Canadian history. That could be welcome news. Canadian history deserves to be better known by Canadians, no argument here. Yet at the same time as the CMC is being touted as a showcase for our collective national history, we are seeing the same federal government drastically limiting the public’s access to its system of national historic sites at the local level. I hope no one seriously thinks they can tell the story of Fort Anne, Grand Pré or Louisbourg better from a museum in Gatineau than at those places themselves. Those particular Parks Canada sites, and many more across the country, are to my way of thinking where such stories are best told. Then again, it’s not just government officials behind this trend to centralize the complex, rich history of this land. The general public, with its declining visitation to national historic sites, set the stage. Revenue generation is the new master, in history as in everything else. So here’s hoping that the emerging trend can be reversed. Along with eating local, maybe people will start visiting the nearby places that shaped this land. History is like democracy; its foundation is at the grassroots.

Working Titles

October 2012

The titles that books end up with are rarely those they start out with, unless they’re academic books. In the latter case, academic presses rarely get involved because attracting a target audience or broad market interest is not a major concern for an academic press.

In the case of my first published novel, Thomas, A Secret Life, that title showed up only a month or so before the book was sent to the printers. My original working title for the story — when I conceived it three decades ago — was “La nuit /Thomas”. At the time I wanted the novel to be an alternation between an elderly Thomas recalling his life during the course of a single night and flashbacks of those many scenes. My vision was that it would be a single book and his complete story would be told within its four hundred or so pages. That is no longer the plan. The story is too big for a single book. So there will be several, most likely four.

Parts of what was “La nuit / Thomas” survive in Thomas, A Secret Life, especially in the opening chapter. But most of the rest was written in the past three years. For most of that stretch I was calling it “Down the Dark Wind”, after a line of poetry that Thomas came up with and particularly likes. When the manuscript reached Cape Breton University Press, however, Mike Hunter was not convinced my suggested title was the best. So for a few months it flipped between “The Dark Wind”, “A Dark Wind” and simply “Dark Wind” with no article at all. None of us who were mulling this over — editor Kate Kennedy was a third voice — was crazy over that title. It might sound to some readers like the book was about vampires or other supernatural stuff like that. In the end it was Mike Hunter who proposed Thomas, A Secret Life, and Kate and I thought it was the best title yet. So that’s what it is.