Drowning in broccoli versus Wallowing in chocolate cake

CoverEver heard of the War of the Stray Dog?  Me neither, until I read  FitzOsbornes in exileMichelle Cooper’s FitzOsborne books are a fiction series for teenagers, and I’m really enjoying them.  Set initially in a made-up kingdom called Montmaray, in the 1930s, and then in London, they are a great read, reminiscent of one of my favourite books ever: I Capture the Castle.  They are (did I say this already?) FICTION – made-up stories, about made-up people, on an island kingdom that DOESN’T EXIST.

What they also do, a bit unexpectedly, is open a window to world history.  A bit like parents who sneak broccoli into chocolate cake, the Montmaray books are full of historical detail, actual real stuff that happened.  I am learning, not only about things like the War of the Stray Dog, but also the Spanish Civil War, British court etiquette, and the often murky political allegiances of upper-class English people between the wars.  Some of this I knew already, some is very much a surprise, and some is history I have been struggling to come to grips with for ages.

The Spanish Civil War, for example . Antony Beevor, I do love your writing, and you have almost never let me down, but I have found your book on this topic to be impenetrable.  So the FitzOsborne books got me thinking: is it okay to approach history from a fictional point of view? To get your 5+ a day from chocolate cake?

The recent publication of Owen Marshall’s novel The Larnachs raises the same kind of question.  Marshall (in his Christchurch Writers Festival session) described the book as:

an imaginative re-creation of a situation experienced by real people

which reminded me of an earlier Auckland Festival session with Rachael King and Paula Morris, in which Rachael commented:

When you’re reading my book, I don’t want you to be thinking about me and my research.  If you are, I’ve failed in my job.

I’m sure we’ve all read books that, while works of fiction, are based wholly on historical events, and are so aware of this that they become a chore to read – I’m thinking specifically about YOU, Kate Mosse, with your overabundance of historical detail. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it so alters the flow of the story that you really feel like you’re drowning in broccoli (so to speak).

Your thoughts, please folks.  Are you a fan of novels that are chock-full of actual facts and actual history?  Or do you prefer your fiction broccoli-free?

3 thoughts on “Drowning in broccoli versus Wallowing in chocolate cake

  1. jane 16 September 2011 / 11:57 am

    It’s what I love about fiction, it makes learning fun!

  2. Michelle Cooper 16 September 2011 / 8:59 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post, which inspired a blog post of my own! I love reading well-researched historical fiction, but I agree, the research shouldn’t get in the way of the story.

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