Why Historical Novels Need Authors' Notes

Have you ever read a great historical novel, gotten really into it, devoured it all the way to the end...and then realized there was no historical note? Nothing to tell you about what was fact and what the writer invented for the sake of the story, nothing about her research process or the sources she used.

Historical fiction is just that, fiction, but most readers pick up a book because they have at least a superficial interest in the time period. They want that time brought to life. And when they've finished, many of them would like to know a little about the nonfiction behind the fiction.

I don't understand authors who don't include at least a teeny historical note. Sometimes all you really need is a page: this is what's real, this is what I made up, the end. Maybe mention a book or two that you found especially helpful.

I'm a fan of going above and beyond that. I love books where the author has taken several pages at the beginning and end to explain the history behind the fiction, and which sources were important. Stephanie Dray and Laurel Corona are good examples of this. I especially liked the glossary/pronunciation guide at the end of Corona's Penelope's Daughter.

My all-time favorite novel (so far) for its end material is Pharaoh's Daughter by Julius Lester. Throughout the book, a retelling of Moses' childhood, Lester takes great care to be as authentically ancient Egyptian as possible, even calling Egypt "Khemet," the Egyptians' own word for their nation. At the end he includes a glossary, an extensive bibliography (two whole pages, small type) and a lengthy but fascinating author's note that describes the evolution of the novel as well as his journey to Judaism.

I also fall more toward that end of the spectrum when it comes to author's notes. I probably wouldn't go so far as to use almost all of the terms that my characters would actually have used. I'm fine with calling Egypt, Egypt, although kudos to those of you who are committed to absolute accuracy. But I have literally dozens of academic articles saved on my computer and scores of books on my shelves, and it would be a real shame not to acknowledge the hard work of all those scholars who helped make my story possible. I'll likely provide a basic bibliography at the end of my novel. Then I can go ape-wild with a super-detailed bibliography on my website or blog.

On the other hand, I'm the kind of person who doesn't consider herself truly knowledgeable about a civilization until she's fluent in their (probably dead) language. So you should take anything I say with a grain of Dead Sea salt.

5 comments:

  1. I absolutely agree with you, but here's where I flash my geek card - I care about the story beyond the story, knowing the details the author couldn't add, what was slightly altered for the sake of the story. Only enhances the story for me.

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  2. I totally agree. If I've enjoyed the book, author's notes not only fill in the blanks, but extend the enjoyment of the book!

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  3. This is a very good point. I wish I had thought of it before my novel set in Roman Egypt "THE HADRIAN ENIGMA: A Forbidden History" was published via Amazon etc.

    Covering the relationship of Rome's emperor Hadrian with his 'Favorite' Antinous, I followed the sparse historical record as closely as possible while adding some fictional characters and events. It was researched extensively, yet ultimately the historical whodunnit has entirely-fictive characteristics woven into it. An author's note would have helped a reader to separate the facts from the historical romance.

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  4. Great post, S.L.! I totally agree. And I also love the historical notes in Pharaoh's Daughter. It's a great book.

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  5. @Lisa: My thoughts exactly! Authors' notes are part of the unique enjoyment of historical novels.

    @Vicky: I love learning about the history and research & writing process we're treated to in authors' notes. They remind me of the "making of" feature on many DVDs, only better.

    @George: I too have been struggling with creating completely fictional characters to fill known historical roles. I searched high and low to find the names of the real men who filled these roles, but in the end I couldn't find them and just had to make up names. My biggest break with history (other than the fact that some of my characters have real magical powers!) is the complete invention of a temple. These liberties are all for the good of the story, but I feel that I should be very clear to my readers about what I made up and why. It will make it easier for them if they want to look into the time period more.

    @Lavender: Pharaoh's Daughter is one of my favorite novels ever. I use it and Mara: Daughter of the Nile by Eloise Jarvis McGraw as measuring sticks for my own Egyptian fiction. They're my gold standard.

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