Sunday 16 June 2024

If It’s Not True, It Should Be: Writing Creative Non-Fiction History for Adults and Children

If It’s Not True, It Should Be: Writing Creative Non-Fiction History for Adults and Children, edited by Paul Ashton (Halstead Press, 2024) PB ISBN 9781920831158

Paul Ashton, compiler of If it’s Not True It Should Be looks at the state of Australian historical fiction asking the question, “how do writers use the past to give their work historical dimensions and insights?” and saying that historians need to think of themselves as creative writers. The contributors include children’s authors, Felicity Pulman, Stephanie Owen Reeder, and Sophie Masson. In her contribution, Walking the Walk, Visions and Voices, Pulman says that in her experience reading historical fiction is a painless way for students to find out about the past – without having to memorise boring lists of dates and names, explorations, and battles, and so on, the way she was taught history. She says she makes history come alive so her readers can see and experience the places and events she creates or recreates, both from her imagination and research.

Owen Reeder writes about the children’s list she built with the National Library Publisher Susan Hall. Her novels, she says, which she researches from primary and secondary sources, are illustrated, bringing the stories alive for young readers, along with information sections at the end of each chapter to act as resting and discussion points. She also includes an epilogue showing what happened to her characters when they grow up.

Masson says that to fill gaps in the record, and create satisfying, believable historical fiction, for children or adults, the author needs not just field work, clues in books and in online resources like Trove, but also actual primary resources that help to create an authentic feeling texture of the times (many of these resources are what might be called ‘ephemera’ – including newspapers, postcards, magazines, and ads).

Overall, the book’s contributors seem to conclude that they need to present history by showing, not telling.  They illustrate the way in which history and literature relate to each other. Whilst history grounds creativity, creative non-fiction allows readers to connect with, and immerse themselves in, historical events.

As well as being immersive, this work is also accurate, thereby informing the reader and bridging the gap between creativity and historical accuracy. Most of the contributors are academically trained historians, whilst the others are eminent writers of historical fiction. This ensures that a balance is achieved between imagination and precision, providing appropriate context and methodology that informs whilst inviting the reader to visualise and personally connect with the events in question.

Apart from being passionate about history, the contributors in this book all share a desire to harness the past in their creative writing practices: to draw on historical sources, both traditional and promiscuous; to develop well-grounded historical imaginations which allow them to fill cracks, gaps or chasms in what are invariably incomplete, invented or censored archives; to look through the eyes of others; to read historical landscapes on the ground and in the mind; and to look to history for inspiration.

Like all good creative non-fiction history and historical fiction, it’s engaging, evocative of time and place, deals with significant events and issues—however large or small—shows different perspectives and is well researched.

This book is significant in that it conveys the notion that historians need to think of themselves as writers, as the utilisation of literary forms allows them to widen their audience and contribute towards the increasing accessibility of history.

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