We have this category called “historical fiction.” There are two problems with it. First, the history is supposed to be factual, but isn’t. Second, the fiction is supposed to be historical, but isn’t.
You want to write historical fiction that’s real? We have a name for that: it’s called History. Despite those horribly dry textbooks you had to read in high school and college, there are some really neat stories in history. You want sex, violence, and a detective story, with a lot of real history thrown in? Try reading Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett. Want to find out how the frontier was really settled, and get an in-depth analysis of an important American novelist, to boot? Try Alan Taylor’s William Cooper’s Town. Want an entertaining read that will teach you about the history of money in this country? Tackle Stephen Mihm’s A Nation of Counterfeiters.
If you want to write fiction with a historical setting, you are really saying that you want to use certain features of the past to tell a story that will mean something to people today. Historical fidelity is not your priority, a meaningful story is. Sometimes, this means the historical trappings are merely there to disguise a story about modern people. See the TV miniseries Rome? It took a lot of criticism for playing fast and loose with history, including having its lead character live more than a decade after her demise. It should have taken even more for being completely false to the values and behavior of actual Romans of the period. It was really a cat fight between two 21st century American women. I called it “Desperate Roman Housewives.”
In The Dragon Lady of Stockbridge, I’ve obviously deviated from actual history. If there were magicians wandering around the Berkshires in 1886, I’ve not seen the records. But the historical scaffolding isn’t just there for color. It sets social and cultural limits on the characters, limits that are not the same as ours. Mrs. Maxwell has problems with her husband, but she is not going to start quoting from The Feminine Mystique; 1960s women’s lib is not available to her. She has to resolve her problems within the range of possibilities available to her in 1886 . . . possibly with some help from magic, possibly not.
To my mind, having to work within the bounds of another society’s structures, practices, and values is what makes historical fiction worthwhile. And yet, to be enjoyable, it has to be understood by people today. The story has to be ahistorical, bridging two times, to be worth reading today. And that’s why, when you come down to it, Dragon Lady is really ahistorical fiction, trying to use a story set in 1886 to say something to readers in 2012.