History and Fiction

Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories

by Gillian Polack (Author)
©2020 Monographs XIV, 192 Pages


Shortlisted for the William Atheling Jr Award for Criticism or Review
Fiction plays a vital role in describing history and transmitting culture. How writers understand and use history can play an equally important role in how they navigate a novel. This book explores the nature of the author’s relationship with history and fiction – often using writers’ own words – as well as the role history plays in fiction.
Focusing on genre fiction, this study considers key issues in the relationship between history and fiction, such as how writers contextualise the history they use in their fiction and how they incorporate historical research. The book also addresses the related topic of world building using history, discussing the connections between the science fiction writers’ notion of world building and the scholarly understanding of story space and explaining the mechanics of constructing the world of the novel. This book places the writing of fiction into a wider framework of history and writing and encourages dialogue between writers and historians.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Foreword
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: The past, history, historians and novelists
  • Chapter 2: Balancing truth, drama and art
  • Chapter 3: Constructing the world of the novel: The research trail
  • Chapter 4: Constructing the world of the novel: The nature of the narrative and of the world-build
  • Chapter 5: The credibility of the story
  • Chapter 6: Developing the story
  • Chapter 7: How research affects the novel
  • Chapter 8: Genre and presenting the history in the novel
  • Chapter 9: The writer’s relationship with narrative: Tools and techniques
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index

← viii | ix →Foreword

We all know that the past is dead and gone … just as we all know that the past lives on everyday. We all accept that the past is unreachable and cannot be revived … just as we all accept that the past shapes our lives every day. In short, we live with paradox around issues like history and the past.

Writers of fiction leap boldly into the midst of that paradox. They exploit it for commercial gain, they mine it for the magic it can be used to create, and on many occasions they explore it for the sake of the insights and revelations it can offer. History and Fiction: Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories is Gillian Polack’s ambitious and illuminating investigation of the role of the fiction writer in exploring history, creating new interpretations and reconsidering old ones.

In the period 2004 to 2010, and again in 2015, Gillian Polack conducted an extensive series of probing in-depth interviews with writers of historical fiction and speculative fiction. In total, around thirty writers were involved – an impressively wide sampling which included published novelists, short story writers, writers who were also publishers or editors, and specialists in historical fiction, historical romance, and historical fantasy. These interviews lie at the heart of this book and are an important and unique feature because they allow the practitioners to speak for themselves. The writers use their own working terminology, they offer their own perspectives on matters ranging from research to plotting to marketing, and they speak from their own personal professional experiences. Their voices are refreshingly honest and candid – you won’t have to read for many pages to discover that! – and this down-to-earth pragmatism is both engagingly reassuring and illuminating.

I said the interviews are the heart of the book, but on reflection that’s not the whole truth. The living beating heart of this book is Gillian Polack herself, with her extensive knowledge of this field. If I seem to be suggesting that this is a book with two hearts, that may not be as inappropriate as it appears. Gillian Polack holds two doctorates (one in History, one in ← ix | x →Creative Writing), and her life has two experiential cores (the theoretical concerns of the working academic and the praxis-based concerns of the working fiction writer). One of the things that delights me about this book is the way it combines dualities in every respect: Gillian’s natural-speaking prose style effortlessly modulates into formal referenced academic discourse, and academic concerns about the ethics of historical appropriation sit comfortably against the writers’ workaday focus on creating a compelling story.

Gillian Polack’s experience in writing her 2014 historical novel, Langue[dot]doc 1305, has contributed to the depth of understanding that underpins History and Fiction. A work of speculative fiction, the novel involves a team of scientists who undertake a ground-breaking on-site research project by time-travelling back to St-Guilhem-le-Désert in 1305. Naturally, this story involved considerable historical research, as Gillian explains:

I built up an image in my mind of the world of the Languedoc in 1305 using a mixture of primary and secondary sources, studies of social behaviour and mentalities, topographical and geological maps and a careful exploration of the region itself.

That sounds like the natural approach to the task, but – as History and Fiction will demonstrate – the writer’s main allegiance is toward the telling of a good story, and the task is not a simple matter of joining up the historical dots. Sometimes dots have to be skipped over; sometimes they may even have to be invented. Those who deal in history and the past must learn to live with paradox …

And they do, in their highly individual ways. Elizabeth Chadwick’s fiction about twelfth-century England tends to focus on well-known and highly researched figures such as Elizabeth of Aquitaine and her family; Michael Barry is mainly interested in the dramatic ‘grubby stuff’ pertaining to historical figures; but Dave Luckett is wary of ‘the pre-formed narratives of the famous’. Wendy Dunn celebrates the unknowable aspect of history (‘what happens behind closed doors’) because ‘it frees us [writers] to be creators’; Kathleen Cunningham Guler strenuously seeks to avoid inventing history (but readily concedes that she has, ‘both knowingly and unwittingly’); and Felicity Pulman describes her use of history as part of ‘an intuitive, unconscious sort of process’ whereby ideas for the story lead ← x | xi →to research, and the research suggests other story possibilities which in turn require more research.

Similar sorts of alternatives and choices confront the team of time-traveller scientists back in Languedoc. They know they must not interfere with the past and must at all times remain impartial and objective in attitude – but that’s easier said than done when it’s your boots on that ancient ground. Just as the scientists have to negotiate potential conflicts and dilemmas, so the writers who use history in their fictions must shrewdly mediate between the expectations of readers and the findings of historians, and negotiate the demands of story against the factualities of dates and events.

History and Fiction provides a thorough and clear overview of these issues. Impressively, it does this from multiple perspectives, offering an overview that should please scholars but at the same time be useful for practicing writers … and on top of that it should also prove illuminating for discerning general readers who want behind-the-scenes insight into the construction of the fictions they so greatly enjoy.

Allow me to conclude with Gillian Polack’s own words:

Novels allow us to feel as if we are participants in [the] past, bringing it to life and allowing us to play with it, to construct narratives that bring it to life. History is the way we mediate with that unreachable past and novels are a powerful way of mediating with that history.

Van Ikin

University of Western Australia

October 2015← xi | xii →

← xii | xiii →Acknowledgements

This project has been a long time in the making. Without communities of writers and of scholars it could not have happened at all. Thanks to my group of science fiction, fantasy fiction and historical fiction friends for listening and arguing and helping me turn my questions into concrete understanding. Thanks especially to Melbourne science fiction fans for always asking ‘Where are you up to?’ and saying ‘We want to know what’s happening!’, to the Historical Novel Society of Australia for their excitement about the project, and to all the students who pushed me that much further in my understanding through keeping me grounded.

Special thanks to the ACT Government for a research grant from ArtsACT, and to Van Ikin for shepherding me through the very difficult final legs. It’s much easier to do a project over three years than over eleven, with other major projects interfering and one’s own novels crying for attention. Van’s encouragement, guidance and advice were invaluable.

There are thirty writers to whom I owe a particular debt of gratitude. Their generosity in revealing how they work and discussing their processes and thoughts so very openly was what made this study possible. Their work is discussed and they are the very best of colleagues and, in some instances, also the very best of friends. These people too, have cheered me on. I hope the results are useful! There are many other writers, scholars and friends who have given this study gentle pushes, including Lucy Sussex, Janeen Webb, Jack Dann, Sharyn Lilley, Stephanie Trigg, Helen Young, Joyce Chng, Rachel Kerr, Naomi Gambetta, Elizabeth Chadwick, Pamela Freedman, Mary Victoria, Valerie Johnson, Andrew Lynch, Kari Maund, Milena Benini, Sari Polvinen, Kathleen Neal, Julie Hofmann, Shana Worthen, Sam Faulkner, Kate Elliott, Richard Lagarto, Valerie Parv, Glenda Larke, Susan Bartholomew, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Edward James, Talie Helene, Kyla Ward, Lee Harris, Kate Forsyth and Jenny Blackford. Thank you all.

← xiii | xiv →And to Dr Stuart Barrow, for checking the final, may I worship at your feet? My right eye went temporarily blind in the last few months of this book and I would not have been able to turn in a clean copy without his patience and attention to detail. I lost my sight in Sydney, on the day of a workshop, and I owe a lot to friends who shepherded me through the following weeks and to specialists who were patient with my impatience.

Thanks also to Sonya Oberman, for helping in a number of ways.


XIV, 192
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Historical research Novelists Developing the story Relationship between history and fiction Transmitting culture Fiction
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XIV, 192 pp.

Biographical notes

Gillian Polack (Author)

Gillian Polack is a writer, editor, historian and critic based at the Australian National University. Her main research interests are cultural development and transmission in both the Middle Ages and the contemporary period. She has published several novels and seventeen short stories and has edited two anthologies. One of her stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award and three more have been listed as recommended reading in the international lists of world’s best fantasy and science fiction short stories. Her non-fiction includes work on historiography, the Middle Ages, Arthurian studies and literature.


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