David McCullough’s 1776 was the first history book that I read as an adult and liked. I felt like I was reading a novel. The book opened my eyes a new writing opportunity. I had written three historical novels at that point, and I realized that non-fiction history could be just as interesting and fascinating as fiction.
The key for both engaging historical fiction and history is that they both should be about people so that readers have someone to identify with. Even if the book’s subject centers around an event, the story needs to be told through people associated with the event. When McCullough wrote about the Panama Canal, he told the story through the eyes of the canal planners and builders.
How much information do you have? This is your first consideration when deciding whether to tell a story as fiction or fact. Is there enough information available through newspaper reports, journals, official records, etc. to give you an understanding of the real people in the story?
Even though you are writing about real people, you can’t assume they will automatically feel real to a reader. People can act irrationally in real life, which you wouldn’t be able to get away with having a fictional character do. Biographical information on the characters will help you build a backstory for them, justify actions and give them a three-dimensional life.
If you can’t find enough information on the key figures to do this, then you will probably want to tell the story as historical fiction so that you can create a life-like character with information you choose.
How important is the history? If the story you want to tell doesn’t rely heavily on a historical person or event, then choosing to tell it as historical fiction can save you a lot of research. Gone With the Wind is a historical novel that is more about Scarlett and Rhett than the Civil War. While they are shaped by the war, the story is not about the war or a historical figure.
Can you work within boundaries? Writing history requires research to uncover the facts and history of your story and staying within those bounds. You have to be able to prove or at least justify what you write.
By justify, I mean that if history has chosen not to record a certain fact for a specific instance that you want, you may be able to infer it from the available information. For instance, I’m writing a book about a small, coal-mining town. The key figure in one scene is walking to the home of a student to check on the health of the student. Now, there is no record of the path he chose to walk or what he was thinking during that walk. But the town only had one road through it, so I know he walked down that road. Also, since he was walking to the visit the student and judging by his later actions, I believe that it is safe to assume that he was thinking about the student and the implications of what her state of health meant for the town.
Things like traditions, food and modes of transportation may all be taken for granted when being written about in records, but other sources of information can give you general examples of those things, which can then be incorporated into the book as long as there is a logical bridge that connects your subject with the extra information. If it’s a weak link, you may need to note it with something like: “It’s not documented, but…”
Your choice of narrative style for your book will affect the type of scrutiny your book will receive, how long it will remain on bookstore shelves and who will read it.