I recently discovered an article titled, Using Historical Fiction in the History Classroom by Sarah K. Herz and published by Yale New Haven Teachers Institute. The article effectively articulates the value of historical fiction as an educational resource. To begin, Peck goes beyond traditional historical fiction to define the historical novel. Historical fiction, or, “costume” novels, place fictional characters within a historical setting, but the characters do not directly interact with that setting in a way that reveals historical events or conditions. A historical novel, on the other hand, as defined by Peck, is “about past public events and people and social conditions and [is] based on historical facts.” Additionally, “the historical novelist does not distort historical data for the sake of literary form.” That is an important distinction because, when done well, the historical novel can evoke an intellectual response in addition to an emotional one.
Writing a historical novel with accurate and detailed historical facts is especially challenging for the historical novelist who must blend history and imagination in a deliberate attempt to recreate the past. But doing so creates a more effective tool than traditional textbooks because of the novel’s ability to bring history to life. As Peck points out, “textbook historical figures often become so heroic and extraordinary or so flat and lifeless that students cannot conceive of these people as ordinary men and women endowed with normal human characteristics. Rather, using imaginative and figurative language, historical novels entice students into historical exploration. And, by placing characters in the context of real life (as brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, etc.) students begin to understand history as a human experience. History becomes relatable. Furthermore, students will begin to recognize history not just as past names and dates, but as circumstances and problems that echo through time, allowing students to begin to understand the significance of the study of history.
As Peck adequately argues, historical novels provide students with excitement, adventure, and a good story. But, when written in a way that incorporates historical accuracy in detail and theme, it provides the necessary elements of a meaningful historical exploration through fiction. History can be taught through fiction. Peck includes important and useful guidelines for using historical fiction in the classroom which I will paste below. You can find the complete article here: Using Historical Fiction in the Classroom by Sarah K. Herz.
I. Setting (time and place)
a. Has the author accurately described a particular historical period in the novel? Explain.
b. List some details that describe the historical period and parallel your study of this particular historical period, e.g. geography, transportation, costume or dress, rural, urban, religious mores, social attitudes.
c. Are the details of locale authentic in the novel?
d. Does the description of the locale fit the historical period? Support with specific details.
a. Are there real historical figures whose names you recognize? List them.
b. Do the historical figures belong in the period described?
c. Does a check against the history textbook or biographical materials show that the historical characters are accurately portrayed?
d. Are fictional characters in keeping with the historical setting?
e. List positive and negative character traits of at least four main real or fictional characters. Show parts of the novel that support this trait.
f. Explain the characters’ involvement in the historical setting and events.
g. How are the historical characters important to the action of the novel?
III. Plot (story line)
a. Does the plot focus on a specific historical incident? Explain.
b. Do the historical characters in the novel participate in a well known historical incident? Explain.
c. Is the conflict real or fictional?
d. Do the characters dramatize an eventful moment in the history of Connecticut, or some other familiar place.
By theme we mean the author’s use of people and events from the past to elucidate some truth about a past era.
a. What social condition in history does the novel reveal?
b. What comment do you think the author is making about this social condition?
c. How can this social condition be related to contemporary life?
d. How do the characters reveal the theme?
e. Does this novel reflect more than one theme?
f. Is there more than one point of view about the theme(s)?
a. Why do you think the author chose to write about this particular historical episode?
b. Is the author revealing any new insights about the historical characters or historical events?
c. Why is this considered a historical novel?
d. Is this novel a good or bad historical novel, based on the previous definition of historical fiction?