“A Persuasive Illusion”

  • By Alexandra Grabbe
  • May 23, 2024

When it comes to historical fiction, it’s vital to get the facts right.

“A Persuasive Illusion”

I finally got around to reading 2006’s Water for Elephants, a New York Times bestseller now available in 45 languages. At the time of its publication, I was caring for my 97-year-old mother while running a bed-and-breakfast on Cape Cod. Now, in Sweden, my husband’s country, I have more leisure time and often spend it reading.

The Strömstad public library serves up five shelves of books in English, everything from Bill Clinton’s memoir to P.D. James and Barbara Kingsolver. I picked out Sara Gruen’s novel about a Depression-era circus with no idea that I’d at last found a book that does history right. What’s more, its author shares her inspiration with readers.

In her author’s note, Gruen explains what sparked her interest in the circus train, going into detail on her research. First, she established a bibliography and discovered some wonderful vintage circus photos. Then, she spent four-and-a-half months acquiring the knowledge “necessary to do justice to the subject.” She goes on to say that the purchase of rare books about circus life preceded three additional research trips. She uses some of the photos as frontispieces for a dozen of the 25 chapters. The result is a novel that radiates veracity.

The suspense of wanting to know what will happen to the fictional Jacob and Marlena — the latter a mesmerizing horse whisperer who made an unfortunate marriage at 17 — keeps readers turning pages, but it’s the historical accuracy that powers the book. We fully believe in the world Gruen has created. She admits “plucking” many of the most outrageous details from fact or anecdote, and we quickly fall under the story’s spell, imagining ourselves as members of a troupe of oddball performers who traveled around the U.S. in the 1930s.

A recent article in Forbes reports a surge of interest in historical fiction. Sughnen Yongo’s piece goes on to recommend 15 such novels published from 1817 to 2018. Yongo does not mention Water for Elephants or Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad or Lauren Groff’s Matrix, instead sticking to more classic titles.

Perusal of a list of successful novels sold over the past year reveals that too few are historical fiction. Can it be true that readers prefer fantasy, thrillers, science fiction, or contemporary LGBTQ+ stories, as agents would have us believe? Perhaps part of the problem is some authors allow cursory investigation to suffice, rather than dipping into a period the way Daniel Day-Lewis is said to prepare for his movie roles.

Historical fiction should be thoroughly researched. My hero is Laila Lamani, who spent five years reading about a 16th-century Spanish expedition to Florida prior to starting The Moor’s Account. The result is a book that became a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  

I’m determined to get my history right. In the novel I’m currently writing, set in Viking times, I verify every detail. My husband is a Swedish historian, so that certainly helps. All I need to do is turn to him and ask a question. He may not always have an answer, but we end up discussing the possibilities and often seek out library sources together.

Books on the history of Vikings clutter the floor under my desk. Above it, I’ve pinned a quote from Jim Shepard that I find particularly useful as I launch myself into the past. It reads in part:

“The fiction writers I admire who deal with history believe that it’s their responsibility to try to get the facts right. The good news…is that…histories don’t always agree on the facts, so you have a little wiggle room…I’m trying to do something that persuades me and provides the basis for a persuasive illusion. A historian has to nail it down, to find sufficient proof…I’m not providing proof, but evocative detail that makes you believe something.”

Evocative detail, wiggle room. I’ve discovered that if you work on the development of your characters and imagine yourself in a period long ago, your novel will take flight. It also helps to think outside the box. So far, these Vikings of mine don’t clash amongst themselves like on the television series “Vikings: Valhalla” or fight disparate bands of warriors. They work hard. They fall in love. They exist as individuals who are part of a tight-knit farming community.

I do my best to communicate the spirit of the time, Shepard’s “persuasive illusion.” I can’t wait to finish my novel so other history buffs can read it and see if I’ve succeeded.

Alexandra Grabbe is a freelance writer who divides her time between New England and Sweden. Her most recent nonfiction appeared in Barrelhouse and Next Avenue. Cherry Orchard Books will publish The Nansen Factor, a collection of her linked short stories, in June 2024.

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