Merriam-Websters Dictionary defines history as “a chronological record of significant events.” This definition might also describe the story in a work of fiction. However, writers use the device of story to convey the past in numerous ways, each of which produces a different reaction on the part of the reader. I’d like to demonstrate use of the same information in three different manifestations: pure history, historical fiction, and nostalgia.
There’s a scene in my contemporary fiction novel Waterbury Winter where the protagonist Barnaby Brown visits a Rhode Island beach. If I had written a history book about the setting, I might have simply stated known facts such as: Roger Williams settled Rhode Island at the top of Narragansett Bay in 1636. Historical facts, though often colored by writers’ interpretations, are usually simply stated, cut and dried, and devoid of emotion.
In historical fiction, writers use facts as the framework of a story and fill in details from their imagination. There are many ways to do this, depending on the author’s point of view or literary style. If I were writing this scene in a historical fiction novel, I might describe it this way: Barnaby Brown gazed across the waves lapping at the edge of Narragansett Bay. His thoughts returned to the guide book he’d been reading. It was possible that Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, had stood in this very spot admiring the very same view of the bay.
Another writer of historical fiction might choose to provide more information and use a more intriguing approach: As he leaned into the wind at the edge of Narragansett Bay with waves lapping at his feet, Barnaby Brown gently unfolded the crinkled letter. His ancestor Roger Williams had written it in August 1636 to describe his relief at standing ashore in this bay, where his ship had recently landed following weeks at sea on the dangerous voyage from his native land.
Of course, we have no idea if Roger Williams observed the water from that spot or if he wrote a letter, but he might have, and the passage includes an element of mystery: exactly what is Barnaby’s connection to Roger Williams? How did he acquire the letter? Who was the intended recipient? What difficulties did the writer experience during the sea voyage, and what prompted it? And so on. The writer has set the scene, and can use fictional details to develop the story and pique the reader’s curiosity.
Merriam-Websters defines nostalgia as “pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” In Waterbury Winter, Barnaby recalls past experiences on a Rhode Island beach: “And those summer afternoons . . . how he misses those times sitting with friends at the water’s edge, watching sanderlings chase, then withdraw with the tide, and the warm nights sipping Margaritas on the shore.”
Nostalgia takes history up a notch by adding a dollop of emotion and evocative images. No work of fiction would succeed if it contained an over-abundance of historical facts, which by definition are telling, not showing, and an excess of nostalgia might be equally unappealing. In fiction, a balance of historical facts, sometimes presented as backstory, skillfully woven into the fabric of the novel works well to bring history alive, and perhaps especially so when combined with a few threads of nostalgia.
Linda Stewart Henley is the author of Estelle: A Novel. Among other honors, it won Silver in the Independent Publisher Book Awards for Historical Fiction and was a finalist for The Eric Hoffer Book Awards as well as for the 2021 Nancy Pearl Award. She lives in Anacortes, Washington, with her husband. Waterbury Winter is her second novel.