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History and Fiction

Writers, their Research, Worlds and Stories

Gillian Polack

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.

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Chapter 1: The past, history, historians and novelists


← 6 | 7 →CHAPTER 1

The past, history, historians and novelists

Writers create fiction from narratives they know. When they bring a strong sense of history into their stories, they draw from the narratives of others. These others may be historians, or they may be other writers (for writers are also readers of fiction), or other tellers of tales (through movies, cartoons, the visual arts). They may even draw directly from primary sources, explaining artefacts without the assistance of anything but their own background. This means, still, they bring narratives from that background, and that those narratives are not mediated by historians and generally do not acknowledge the influences of other cultures. No writer works without these influences, even if they believe they do. No artefact lacks cultural contexts: writers are as capable as others of being influenced without acknowledging or even noticing this influence.

To understand this more fully, we need to take two steps back. First, we need to understand current thinking concerning historical narratives, on the work of historians and how our cultures explain the past. But before we can do this, we need secondly to set up some basic definitions. What do we mean (in this context) by ‘the past’, by ‘history’?

Terms such as ‘history’ and ‘the past’ and their relationship have been debated vigorously for many years. Two journals where the current state of this debate can be seen are History and Theory and Rewriting History. The...

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