So was that real?
I hear variations on this theme all the time from readers. Titrating fact and fantasy can give a story a mysterious energy. Writers fetch up those details that sate the senses, allowing us to touch and taste, hear and feel how things were once upon a time. A woman steps out in Gilded Age New York City. Would she wear muslin or silk, petticoats or a hoop of whale baleen? Short kid gloves or long satin ones? How deep is her decolletage? All the particulars, please!
Some classics — Jack Finney's Time and Again comes to mind — place invented characters in an authentic historical milieu. This approach is great. But I have a soft spot for those authors who revive some living, breathing figure, often a relatively minor one (hello, Thomas Cromwell). Real events, forgotten or infamous, also have a welcome grit about them.
Each of these summertime reads picks up where history leaves off. All are rich enough that I felt satisfied even before I read the author's source notes. But when I learned "what was real" in these books I reached a whole new level of delight.
Knowing there is fact behind the fiction made reading these hammock-friendly books a fantastic experience for me. Voltaire famously said, "History is the lie commonly agreed upon." I think we all know that a diplomatic agreement comes into play when readers encounter a historical novel that they love, that engulfs them in the glories of the past. The author agrees not to indulge in glaring "presentisms" — the latest jargon for anachronism — and has to steer away from being all "ye olde," as well. As a reader, I agree to ignore the inconvenient truth that the Russian characters in the story should be speaking Russian, say, instead of the English on the page. The writers who get me excited, like this summer's crop of novelists, blow on a historical ember and coax it into a literary flame.
Jean Zimmerman's debut work of historical fiction, The Orphanmaster, a murder mystery set in Dutch Manhattan, has just come out in paperback. She posts daily at Blog Cabin, jeanzimmerman.com.