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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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The relationship between history and fiction is complex, and looking for understanding from a new direction – through discussion with writers about their own work – has led to some very interesting conclusions. The key conclusion is that writers place history in the service of story. The type of story is critical to how history is used in fiction, and the nature of the writer’s interest in story influences the type of story chosen.

Within this framework, history plays an important role in building the world of the novel and in helping the writer advance the story. History has roles both in world building and in narrative and these roles vary from writer to writer. Thus history is always at the service of story (and when this relationship is broken, info-dumping ensues and the narrative falters), but in story’s service, it does not always serve the same function.

The writing techniques used by fiction writers are tools that demonstrate the importance of specific aspects of narrative that structure the narrative for the reader, that create bridges between reader and narrative, that present voice (whether the narrator’s or that of characters in the novel), and that demonstrate the stylistic choices the writer has made in order to define their narrative. These are the tools that enable the writer’s narrative. History is in service, therefore, to a series of techniques that are in turn in service to the story.

The relationship of the writer with their...

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