Welcome to my new blog The Story Behind the Story! I’m going to share my thoughts about writing memoir—personal history, and historical fiction, the genre of my new novel The Forger of Marseille. Historical fiction draws upon the lived history of real people and adds fictional characters and scenes to help the reader feel they have traveled through time to another era. I’ve been thinking about the similarities shared by memoir and historical fiction. Each genre draws upon elements of the past—events, people, and settings to create stories that capture the essence of a time and place and how people lived then. Through stories, we experience how they lived, what they ate, and how they fell in love. I’m going to explore these similarities and contrasts as I continue to bridge the genres of memoir and historical fiction in my writing and coaching.
Authenticity and Realism
In a memoir, the writer offers the reader the truth of their lives as they lived it. A memoir has a theme, an arc, that reveals how the author overcame challenges and what they learned and offers a takeaway for the reader. Readers are invited to feel into specific events, emotions, and thoughts of the protagonist. Historical fiction requires extensive research to depict historical context and events, and one source of material, if it can be found, is through memoirs of the time. In both genres, characters invite the reader to experience life in a different time and place. Authentic details create a world for the reader to inhabit.
Memoirs and historical fiction both use stories and characters to evoke deep emotions. Memoirs draw on the author’s personal emotions and reflections, allowing readers to connect with the protagonist and identify with their challenges. Historical fiction portrays the struggles, triumphs, and tragedies of characters set against a historical backdrop. Whether it’s a memoir recounting a poignant life event or a historical fiction novel depicting the emotional journey of characters in a particular time period, both rely on a vivid narrative and character insights to evoke emotion and empathy.
Though memoirs are based on the author’s lived experiences, research may be needed to accurately depict the era. Memoirists draw upon research to refresh their memories, fact-check details, or provide a deeper historical context. Historical fiction writers use research to ensure that the historical setting, events, and characters are portrayed authentically. Both genres make demands on the writer to provide an authentic and accurate view of the past.
Blending of Personal and Historical Narratives
Memoirs weave the author’s personal story with the historical context of the time. A memoir about growing up during the civil rights movement might include both the author’s personal experiences as well as reflections about the broader historical events of the era. Historical fiction blends fictional characters and events with real historical figures and significant moments in history. Personal and historical narratives in memoir and historical fiction blend to create a dynamic story that makes readers keep turning the pages.
Reflection on Social and Cultural Norms
Memoirs and historical fiction provide insights into cultural beliefs and activities from the past. Memoirs reflect on the author’s experiences and observations of how life was lived in her community, bringing forward the culture, behaviors, décor, values, politics, and beliefs of the era. Similarly, historical fiction presents a vivid portrayal of the social, political, and cultural context, providing readers with a deep experiential understanding of how people lived. Both genres capture the nuances and specifics of a specific time period.
Impact on a Reader’s Understanding of History
Both memoir and historical fiction offer windows into history. Memoirs are personal, and through learning about the author’s lived experience, the reader feels and comes to understand it. A memoir invites the reader into an intimate point of view that is the writer’s truth. Historical fiction satisfies a reader’s curiosity and interest in history. Through the development of characters, as well as through getting to know the “real people” who lived then, the reader is seamlessly immersed in the past.
Memoir and historical fiction enrich our understanding of history. Each provides a unique perspective that reveals the past, offering the reader empathy and a deeper understanding of our shared human experience. Which genre appeals to you? Do you ever wish you could time travel? Google themes, topics, eras and see what grabs your interest.
What stories from the past fascinate you? Start writing and explore specifically what you want to know more about, and why. Personal stories? Stories from a certain era?
Are there historical eras you’re curious about? What first steps might you take to explore them?