Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres to read and to write. I have a degree in history and have maintained my love of history throughout my life. I write what the great Alan Furst calls the “historical thriller,” and I just finished reading a three-book series (with more to come) about a woman who becomes a spy for MI-5 in Britain during World War II. (It’s the Maggie Hope series by Susan Elia McNeal, and I highly recommend it for a glimpse into Britain during the Blitz and before the U.S. enters the war. Lots of accurate historical references and historical figures abound, behaving in ways you’d expect them to. McNeal has done her homework well.)
I have a couple of sticking points, though, with historical fiction. The history has to be accurate. You can take some dramatic license, yes, but it has to fit into the overall context of the history and the era. And the fiction within that context has to be believable. Am I a fan of the alternate history genre? Not particularly, though I have read some which have made the fictional version of history believable; otherwise, just call it fantasy and be done with it. Do I have a problem with the Steampunk genre? No. When it’s done well, the author takes the technology of a particular time period and creates perfectly believable machines, which may not appear in reality for another century. Is Steampunk truly historical fiction? Yes, in that the Steampunk author has to be well-grounded in the real history of the era to make his or her work believable.
So, accuracy and believability, and I’ve closed books and put them aside permanently when I’ve spotted an obvious historical gaffe. (And don’t get me started on aviation inaccuracies!)
Today’s Friday Fictioneers photo prompt put me right smack in the middle of a rush of nostalgia. I worked not too far from Union Station in Washington, DC, for many years, and I always loved going into that building. Architecturally, it is a marvel, and it had seen so much history. By the 1970’s it was almost a ruin, just a giant pigeon roost, and it took an act of Congress, literally, to get it back on its pinnings. Today it’s a classy shopping mall with several great restaurants and still an operating train station. If you’re ever in DC, make sure it’s a tourist destination for you. DC’s Metro Subway system has a stop there, making it easy to get to.
Union Station has seen so much history, it was hard to pick something specific to write about, even harder to confine it to 100 words, but I focused on the Serviceman’s Canteen. Open between 1941 and 1946, twenty-four hours a day the Canteen offered coffee and good food mainly to servicemen passing through Union Station but also to any passenger or even people off the streets of DC. It averaged three million customers a year. I can remember my father and several uncles commenting about stopping there for a five-cent meal. It closed permanently in May of 1946 mainly because its typical customer–a G.I. on his way to be shipped out–no longer trooped through the station in large numbers.
The Canteen attracted even high-society women in DC, who wanted to do something for the war effort, and my story, “Good Service,” acknowledges one of them. Did this happen? Not that I know of, but in the context of this woman’s history, it’s completely believable she could have done something like this. I know this woman had left DC in 1945, but for something important to her, I could see her returning. What is historically accurate is that this woman did indeed sell food to servicemen from the Serviceman’s Canteen.
As usual, if you don’t see the link on the story title in the paragraph above, go to the top of the page and click on the Friday Fictioneers tab. Then, you can select the story from the drop-down menu.