Narrative History or Historical Fiction?

Most of the time I think I’ll write my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone 1877, as narrative history, but when I hit a dead end in my research, I’m tempted to switch to historical fiction. That happened yesterday when I was trying to find out what the weather was like in Yellowstone Park on August 25, 1877.

One of the main characters in my book, George Cowan, woke up that morning after lying unconscious under a tree in his blood-soaked clothing. George was suffering from three gunshot wounds so severe that he could barely crawl, let alone walk. He hoped to drag himself on his elbows for five miles that day to a campsite where he might find food.

I’d like to write something like this: “An ominous gray sky greeted George . . ..” Or maybe: “The bright morning sun cast deep shadows that must have looked like canyons to George . . ..”

I don’t want to just say: “George awoke the next morning . . ..” But I may have to if I can’t find out what the weather was like. It might be easier to give up narrative history and convert to historical fiction. Then I wouldn’t have to ground every detail in the facts; I could just make stuff up.

That may sound like a no-brainer: don’t bother with the hard research; go with historical fiction, but it’s not that easy. When you tell your readers you’re writing fiction, you promise to provide compelling stories, fully formed characters, and gripping details that will bring your story to life. That can be as hard—maybe even harder—than sticking to the facts.

I’ve got myself persuaded. I’m sticking with narrative history—at least for now. I know it’s possible to write true stories that have all the compelling virtues of fiction. Laura Hillenbrand did it with Seabiscuit; Erik Larson with Devil in the White City; Timothy Egan, The Big Burn; David Laskin, The Children’s Blizzard—and there are many more examples.

If they can do it, maybe I can do it.

What do you think?


— To see related posts, click on “Narrative History” under the Categories Button on the right side of this page.

Read more about History versus Fiction.


9 thoughts on “Narrative History or Historical Fiction?

  1. Well, I’ve always been partial to historical fiction, but that’s just me. You’ve got to stick with what feels right for you–you can do it!

  2. Narrative history, definitely.

    George awoke the next morning. So what?

    The bright morning sun cast deep shadows that must have looked like canyons to George . . .. This passage is picturesque and involving for a reader.

    You could do either, but as Deb says—stick with what feels right!!!!!!!!!

  3. What an interesting topic for your book. I’m intrigued. I think you should stick with narrative fiction for the reasons you mentioned. I think you could even use the “bright morning sun” passage, and if you’re worried about the sun part, you could substitute “light”, or just “the morning light” or “the ethereal glow of morning” or something that doesn’t specify sun or clouds.

    Also, it didn’t return a value for the date you need, but sometimes will find historical weather info (and lots of other interesting facts) for you. Good luck with your writing, and thanks for adding me to your blog roll!

    • Hi Gwen —

      Thanks for your comment. But I have to say, you confused me: you’re recommendation was a hybrid, “narrative fiction.” I infer from context that you meant “narrative history.”

      I’m going with history rather than fiction (at least for now). The historical record is fairly rich so I think it will provide enough detail to provide an engaging story. Going the history route will force me to keep more detailed notes as I do my research, but that won’t hurt anything if I decide to switch to historical fiction later.

      Thanks for suggesting I’ve added it to my reference links collection.

      Did you see my question about using Keywords in Scrivener? I think I would find keywords useful, but haven’t figured them out. The topic might make a good Tech Tuesday post.

  4. Pingback: Narrative History or Historical Fiction? — Redux « M. Mark Miller

  5. Pingback: Narrative History or Historical Fiction 3: A Moonlit Night In Yellowstone Park, August 23, 1877. « M. Mark Miller

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