A couple of years ago a writer friend and I participated in a flash fiction writing contest where each participant received a genre, an object, and a location. Then, we had forty-eight hours to come up with a 1,200-word story meeting those parameters. The genre she and I got was “historical fiction.” I mean, seriously; right in my wheelhouse; no so much my friend’s.
Not long after receiving the genre, my friend called and said, “How old does an event have to be to be history?”
Being an historian I said, “Well, there are recent things, which, because of their significance, are considered historic. Like Barack Obama’s election, for example.”
“How about the Challenger disaster?” she asked.
The Challenger was part of the fleet of NASA’s Space Transportation System, aka, the Space Shuttle. In 1986, shortly after lift-off with America’s first “Teacher in Space,” Christa McAuliffe, Challenger exploded and killed all on board.
At the time my friend asked, the Challenger disaster was exactly thirty years in the past.
When she submitted her story, she didn’t place in the contest because, the judges said, Challenger was current events, not history. WTF?
To complete my degree in history, I had to take a course in historiography, which the professor explained meant “the history of history.” Yeah, pretty simplistic. More accurate is “methods of historical scholarship.”
So, basically, then, historians determine when something is history. However, ask an historian when something is history, you’ll likely get a different answer from every one of them. It all depends on who trained them. My professors almost collectively said, “History is one generation past.” For example, then, for me, World War II and everything before it was history because the generation before me fought it. (The rough definition of a generation is thirty years.) That only works in this case if you consider the end of World War II in 1945 as the beginning of the next generation.
However, World War II and its aftermath were very much a part of my generation, e.g., the Cold War and all the events associated with it.
Other historians say that if you were living at the time an event happened, it isn’t history. For you. That would mean Vietnam, Watergate, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, various assassinations, etc., are merely current events to me. Uh, I don’t think so.
Even other historians say something is history when an historian writes a scholarly work about it, a dissertation or a book.
Well, What is History, Then?
To me, history in the broad sense, not the personal history sense, is anything that affected the lives of the majority of people in a country at any given time. By that definition, the Challenger disaster is history, an historical event. Also by that definition, the election of 2016 could be historic. In a way it is, but not in a good way, in this historian’s opinion. (It’s particularly depressing for historians like me who specialized in the time between the world wars; we spot the similarities.)
I recently went to see the movie, The Post, which is about the Washington Post‘s decision to publish Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers. This is an event I certainly lived through in 1971 and remember quite well. After I bought my ticket and was waiting to be let in the theater, I asked the twenty-something cashier if she liked the movie.
“Oh, I haven’t seen it,” she replied. “What’s it about?”
“The Pentagon Papers,” I said.
A look of utter, vacant, blankness. “Never heard of that.”
It seems schools are not only not teaching history; they’re not teaching “current events” either. I suggested she Google it.
Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, etc., these are all history to me, and don’t try to tell me they’re not.
And, yes, historians sit around and think about these things.
So, What Exactly Do I Write?
I’ve struggled with cataloguing my writing. My first novel, A War of Deception, was about something that really happened in early 2001, and, indeed, it wasn’t as significant as another event that happened later in that year. In some ways, the uncovering of a long-time mole in the FBI wasn’t an historical event. It happened in this current generation; it affected a lot of people in a single government agency and a man’s family; it certainly didn’t have a significant effect on the country as a whole. It doesn’t even meet my own definition of history.
Why did I write about it? Because the real person involved was fascinating. He made a black mark, a small one, on American history. I believe Americans would have been more interested in and involved with the aftermath of his betrayals had 9/11 not occurred and pushed this man to the backroom of history, where, quite possibly he belongs. His ego would get a big boost if we kept him in the forefront, so let’s not.
I called it “historical fiction” simply because it took place in the past compared to the now. I’ve also used “historical thriller” to describe it, but the master of this kind of writing, Alan Furst, may have the simplest moniker for it: “historical spy novel.” But again, he writes about pre-World War II. No question that’s history.
The events in my upcoming series of four novels took place in 1993 – 1995, in the second generation after World War II. Does that make it historical fiction? To me, yes. For the people who lived through the real events these books are based on, it will always remain their personal history, as well as in their descendants’ personal histories, no matter what historians say.
What do you think? When is something history for you?
Why not read some of my work and see if you agree? Grab some free excerpts of A War of Deception by clicking here.