The “frontier” between fiction and nonfiction

originally posted March 16, 2013
May 2021: reformatted; text revised as noted

One of my favorite new blogs, A Writer of History, recently posted a fascinating interview about the writing of historical fiction—or is it “creative history” or historical nonfiction?  Personally, while some argue that the terms are synonymous for the same genre, I’ve always felt that the genre designation depended on the author, the research, the message, and the presentation, if you know what I mean!  And I’m glad that author Charlotte Gray, in this interview with A Writer of History blogger Mary Tod, seems to agree—she has definitely earned the right to place her relevant works (Gray also writes pure nonfiction) into the genre of historical nonfiction.

During the interview, which was posted to the blog on February 25, Tod asked two seemingly unrelated questions of Gray: “What ingredients make for successful historical nonfiction?” and “Can you tell us what you mean when you say that the frontier between fiction and nonfiction is under constant negotiation?”

Gray’s insightful response, “Trustiness,” is actually central to the fiction-nonfiction debate:

My approach to research is to cast the net as wide as possible, and gather as much information as I can. . . . I have worked hard to establish a reputation as a nonfiction writer who does not invent characters, events, conversations. If I say what somebody is thinking, I know about their internal monologue from private letters, etc. So readers can know they are increasing their knowledge and understanding of Canadian history without constantly asking themselves, “Did this really happen?” . . .  A novelist is not under such constraints to stick to the known facts . . . he or she can let their imaginations run! (But if they have somebody driving a car in the 1880s, that’s a problem!)

Jump over to A Writer of History and glean the knowledge that awaits in Gray’s many other information-packed and thought-provoking answers. While reading, remember that much of the commentary and advice can pertain to other fiction genres and categories as well as it does to any type of nonfiction.

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UPDATE:  I still read A Writer of History as often as I can (in fact, it’s one of the best resources that I do try to stay up with), and I find its posts by Tod and by its guest posts both resourceful and informative—note that it is a live blog, despite the appearance of some dated lists that appear to stop several years ago: just use the search box to find more recent posts.

image information: Featured image, via Children’s Literary Genre Study, a graduate-class wiki associated with Barbara A. Jansen, University of Texas at Austin, School of Information