At a recent conference of history writers, I asked the presenter:
What do you consider to be the difference between historical fiction and narrative or creative nonfiction?
I'd been discussing the question with my editor, Karen Klockner, especially as it pertains to my Time Traveler Tales and Tours. We’d been trying to decide if my first two stories in the Paris series crossed genres, and if it really mattered.
My first story, Beware Madame la Guillotine, features a protagonist, Charlotte Corday, who is very much part of the historical record. In my current ms, however, the main character is an invention.
This story is the sequel to Charlotte’s. It opens with the dawning of the Revolution, but spans the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. It focuses the lens on the Emperor’s ambitions to put Paris on the map as the “gem of Europe”, following a decade of revolution, upheaval, destruction, and war. He did this by putting hoards of people to work. Hard work.
They built bridges and paved roads; they redirected rivers, created canals and plumbed public wells to bring potable water to Paris neighborhoods; some even dug up the semi-decayed, rotting bodies of the city’s ancient Church graveyards. This is how the remains of Paris’ dead going back 1000 years were interred and relocated to the south of the city. This is the origin of the then-established Paris Catacombs.
In total, an estimated 6 million bodies were dug up and moved to the former Roman rock quarries, starting with Paris' oldest and most pestilential graveyard. I found this fascinating, and a wonderful “way in” to the history of the age for young readers.
But while Napoleon’s good works are well documented, the lives of the people who made them happen are not. The gravediggers, in particular, were the poorest and most desperate of men. You would have to be to agree to handle that which everyone else wanted swept away due to its putrid stench.
So I had to invent a character, Jean-Philippe Toulier, gravedigger, to be the voice of an époque.
If ever there was an untouchable class in French society, Jean-Philippe was part of it: a member of a shadow society of outcasts, helping to cleanse the city of its feudal past. But someone had to have done the job that Jean-Philippe did. So while Jean-Philippe is an invention, his story is very much grounded in historical fact.
That is the challenge of all Time Traveler Tales: to combine the journalist’s pursuit of fact and the scholar’s value of research with the fiction writer’s flair for storytelling sprinkled with just the right amount of poetic passion. To research well, report in a creative way, and review that every fact and detail is accurate.
It's a tall order. But the bottom line tenet in creative nonfiction is “you can’t make it up”, where you can, and do, in historical fiction.
Yet in the process of writing this Tale, I found myself weaving together historic clues to create a story, rather than reveal one. Can this still be considered creative nonfiction? Or have I crossed a line into historical fiction? Or is it somewhere in between?
I went to the conference, in part, to seek an answer to this question. Because, to be honest, I was stuck. Blocked. Unable to write. So close to the finish line I could taste it. But still too far to break the ribbon.
The facilitator’s answer?
I hate the term ‘creative nonfiction’.
Didn’t really address the issue, did she?
At first, I felt rebuffed, even angered by her response, like I’d been given the hand by my teenaged daughter. But then I realized that perhaps she didn’t know the answer either.
So like any good researcher, I looked further. And here’s what I’ve determined. I would love to know what you think.
Historical fiction tells made-up stories set in past places. Authors of this genre pay careful attention to period detail to remain faithful to place, setting, and time. But the main characters and their tales are inventions, pure and simple, even if they encounter true historical figures along their journey. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak, is a great example. As is Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, and my perennial favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
Narrative (or literary) nonfiction, by contrast, is telling a true story in a narrative fashion. It’s the journalistic style of the New Yorker Magazine and Vanity Fair, pioneered by the New Journalism literary movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s codified by Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and Gay Talese, among others. Popular examples of this genre include Capote’s In Cold Blood, Hiroshima by John Hersey, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, and many wonderful picture books, such as those by the Pinkneys and The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles. It’s the storytelling style of many contemporary biographers, like Doris Kearns Goodman and Antonia Fraser, who weave factually-researched primary sources about a person’s career and achievements into a yarn that reveals a life that should never be forgotten.
Many contend that creative nonfiction is just another name for narrative nonfiction. But I’m not sure I agree. I wonder if it isn’t something between historical fiction and narrative nonfiction, a different genre again.
Creative nonfiction, like narrative nonfiction mixes factually accurate prose with compelling and vivid dramatic action to communicate fact in a way that reads like fiction. It is structured like a traditional narrative, using literary techniques as old as writing itself, but with a commitment to historical authenticity. It is true stories, creatively told.
But if we look Laura Amy Schlitz’s wonderful title, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from A Medieval Village, for example, we see unwavering dedication to the reality of the time-period portrayed through made up characters that absolutely could-have-been.
This, too, is the case in my current work-in-progress, Decade of the Dead. It is a true story, factually researched yet dramatically told through the first-person narrative voice of an invented character who could-have-been.
So what do you think? Am I writing narrative nonfiction or historical fiction? Or is it something in between? Can that something be called creative nonfiction? Or does it really not matter?
Please click the comments tab and leave me your thoughts. I need your help to break this writer’s block!