I love novels that are so steeped in history, they meld fiction and nonfiction. These are most often historical novels about real people who did noteworthy things, where the author builds the story around both fictional and nonfictional characters and dialogue. The best of these novels are deeply researched, and by the end I’ve experienced history in a way I couldn’t with nonfiction.
The difference between these books and general historical fiction is that some of the main characters are real people and the story is based primarily on real events. These books often include an explanation of what was true and what was invented (and why). These are books where, as soon as I finish, I get on the internet to learn more.
I’m not much of a biography reader, finding them fairly dry. These novels provide details about famous, interesting people who did great (or terrible) things. And they provide more nuance and insights than straight nonfiction is able to, as long as you don’t mind the author taking some factual liberties.
A perfect example is Ariel Lawhon’s Code Name Helene, about an Australian woman who was a Resistance Leader in France during World War II. Her story is amazing, and Lawhon explains that nearly everything in the book, except for one key character, is based on true events.
Another excellent example, though with more fictional elements, is this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich. Erdrich wrote this novel about her grandfather and his fight to keep Congress from terminating (or “emancipating”) his tribe.
Another reality-based favorite is the Kopp Sisters series by Amy Stewart, about three real-life sisters in New Jersey during World War I – in particular, one of the country’s first female deputy sheriffs. The first novel, Girl Waits With Gun, was inspired by an actual newspaper article headline.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell is more fictional, but I’m including it because O’Farrell’s story is rooted in what we know about William Shakespeare, his wife Ann, and their lives at the time when Hamlet was written, including a very detailed discussion of how the plague was spread.
One of my favorite writers is T. Coraghessen Boyle, who specializes in this type of novel. He’s written detailed historical fiction about Frank Lloyd Wright, Alfred Kinsey, Harvey Kellogg, Stanley McCormick and his wife Katherine Dexter (who contributed to the invention of the birth control pill).
A few other recommendations that deftly blend fiction and nonfiction in different ways:
- The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (about an abusive reform school in Florida)
- The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson (about the Blue People of Appalachia and the Pack Horse Librarians)
- Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (about a true murder in 1829)
- We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter (a novelization about the author’s family during WWII)
- Mr. Mac and Me by Esther Freud (about Charles Rennie Mackintosh)
I’d love to read more books like this, so please let me know if you have any suggestions.