History and the Limitation of Fiction

Justin Brewer




Telling Tales of the Past.


What is History, and What is the Limitation of Fiction.


On the topic of how to present a work as something of of History, one has to ask the question, how do they wish to reach their audience. History is a living entity of different mediums that each have their own intrinsic value depending on the information that needs to be processed. This was the goal of my historical fiction on the justice system of early Colonial America. In doing this I wanted to reach out and tell a narrative from a character of my own design. During the research process, I realized that actual cases of colonial law had to be taken with a grain of salt for the reasoning of a witness testimony. The reasoning behind this is that the witness testimony was the only reliable source of evidence that you were going to come across. This inherently has its flaws as a historical source, because the primary source may already be tainted from the inception date by the original eyewitness testimony.

I felt that to best represent the historical reference of Colonial American justice, the perspective of a real life historical figure had to be sacrificed. Much like in a scientific writing the goal is to eliminate the bias present. This comes down to a process of thinking whether it is better to take the character into your own hands, or to rely on the second hand account of a possibly biased and twisted account of an event that was so common considering the politics of Colonial America. So to answer this conundrum I decided to take the risk of creating a scenario of fiction so that I could better utilize the factual information about the colonial justice system, than I could have while attempting to work in the confines of an already rare and potentially flawed scenario.

The next issue that presented itself to me was what time period during the colonial period would I utilize as the source of my setting. I went through several possible answers, and my first choice was the 1800’s. However, as I researched this more I realized that there was a staggering difference between the justice system of Early Colonial America, which was based off the concept of English Common Law. This early system was the focus that I wanted to explore in the unfair treatment of supposed criminals that often came to the colonies to start over with a fair chance. Not to be thrown away without the proper chance to defend yourself against any accusations. Furthermore the setting of early Boston interested me because it allowed for a character that could still be considered into the mix of a bustling life, but with the ability to be located along the outskirts of a growing colony, that keeps a nice mix of a rural hardship, that compliments the early laws of the time.

The choice of using murder over a more, common offense was a simple course of action. In this narrative I wanted the risk of my characters guilt to go much farther than a simple whipping or time on the stocks. While these punishments were certainly more common at the time, In the research I learned that these lighter offenses would often carry little to no jail or trial time, and just result in a quick punishment. These non capital punishments were meant as an act of reformation to the colonists in a religious sense, than to inflict a lasting or crippling wound. The reasoning was to avoid injury at all cost in the event that someone would then be removed from the working population, and in a society with few human resources the results would be a much higher risk than if the person was just in a way humiliated for their crime instead.

In my story the character of Jacob is heavily religious when it comes to his impending death. This is meant to bring in the religious focus of the laws during this era. As previously stated the main goal of punishment was to reform not to kill. So even in the case of a murder there is still a very large cultural stigma to try and reform the criminal even if he or she is receiving capital punishment as a result. However it can easily be noted that Jacob does not find the public redemption in the church because of his belief in his own innocence. In colonial America this was a very real problem, on the same level as the false witness statements. The concept of honor when a person believed themselves to be innocent would often lead to and increase on the punishments that were given out. Although Jacob could not receive any larger punishment than the capitol offense, the idea of preserving honor even in the state of an impending death becomes an important theme for the role religion played as the crux of society.

As far as describing this into the broad terms of a Historical paper, I would say that my story fits well to the overarching theme and issues that were faced with in the colonial justice system. The overall story attempts to remain as period accurate as possible within the story, and all practices and punishments are portrayed realistically from that sense of the word. To me historical learning does not have to include exact replicas of people, the setting and conflicts of the time period are the messages that need to be taken away. That being said I am by no means saying that the factual details that are present in scholarly articles are not important. On the contrary these two themes of history are uniquely separate from each other and should be for good reason . Take for example the argumentative value of facts found in this statement “As early as 1760 a hanging machine had been tried out in England…thus avoiding slow deaths, and altercations between the victim and executioner” (Foucault 12). This fact of a machine is backed up with the specifics of its design to illustrate a point of function. The old adage that form is equal to function could not be truer in this sense. Factual information in this regard can be very effective to backing up a claim when the information is reliable and to the point, this keeps the historical accuracy of the research and manages to eliminate some of the human bias that can accrue in historical depictions by already biased observers.

On the opposite end of the spectrum works, like my own final paper take the differing approach of creating a system around a rigid historical system that we want the audience to interact with. A great example of this can be found in Author of myself, in which although the narrative takes liberties with the character involved “Reader these are not my words. This is not my tongue. “Tis my master’s, for he has stolen mine own, driven it from me with his lash. But ’tis the language you understand, reader, and I want you to understand me, and how – one way or t’other – I shall be free.” (Kuchta 1). A character is being explored that was rare and an uncommon site in the historical setting that the author wishes to explore. However, by creating a character to act as a proxy for the research that has been gathered, an approximate facsimile of how a person that was actually present and possible to use from a reliable first person source can be. Trying to find a balance between these two points of Realism and the limitations of source material for historical interpretation means that it is necessary for one to be sacrificed for another. Both have their inherent values and risks associated with them but from a historical perspective give a more broad representation of what the actual history may have been like to experience. My work falls under this secondary notion of historical fiction and focuses the ways in which to deal with the concept of colonial trials and law, over the notion of telling a fixed story from the perspective of a static character who has little room to explore the topic.

As a message of the class, this ideal that history is not a static media that should only be interpreted one way is an archaic model. While the idea of attempting to mix historical genres promotes a wider array of critical thinking in an audience. The reasoning behind all these different historical genres makes more logical sense when described in this way. They continue to exist because they are effective for a certain goal in the process of learning History. So anyone that wanted to monopolize the way humanity experiences history is only limiting the ways that humanity can branch out. If the goal of learning history is to not make the same mistakes as the past this then having this wide variety of experience would better suit an individual to make those choices.


Works Cited


Foucault, Michel (1975). Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, pp 1-31.

Kuchta, David (2013). Author of Myself, pp 1-30


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