Nicole Galland is the co-author of The Mongoliad: Book Three.
Secret History: The Brightest Heaven of Invention
I sat down to craft an essay about the experience of writing a “secret history” novel – i.e., The Mongoliad – in contrast to writing more traditional historical fiction, which is what I do with the rest of my time.
After staring at a blank piece of paper for quite a while, I decided there wasn’t much of a difference. History is full of secrets, so what does it matter if the secrets of any given story are far-fetched or not? I was ready to argue that The Mongoliad is every bit as “truthful” as any historical novel you’ll ever read. (In some ways, more so, because we’re honest about how much reality we are inventing.)
Then I realized that such thinking is a terrible disservice to the magic inherent in “secret history.” I don’t mean that a secret itself has to do with magic – there is no overt magic in The Mongoliad, for example (although Book 3 hints at certain mysteries to come). It is the very existence of a secret – any secret, really – that opens the trapdoor for magic to slink in.
When I write “regular” historical fiction, I am preoccupied with trying to convince my readers that they are not reading fiction, but rather a dramatized version of real history. Everything that happens must happen for reasons that are either well-documented or well-reasoned from known facts. This creates the impression that I am telling the truth, even when I am actually making things up.
Take, for example, my novel Crossed, about the Fourth Crusade. The chief feature of the Fourth Crusade is that the crusading fleet, rather than pursuing its stated mission of freeing the Holy Land, got sidetracked to Constantinople, where eventually they viciously sacked the very city they had come to protect. Historically speaking, there are several parties who can be blamed for this travesty. I had to choose one culprit for my story, and I had to make it a plausible choice. If I did my job well (and I’d like to think I did okay), my readers finish Crossed believing they know the real reason why the Fourth Crusade went so disastrously wrong.
In truth, they “know” only what I’ve convinced them of. Nothing warns them that what they “know” is only an interpretation, not a certainty. I believe my own interpretation. But I don’t know it for a fact. And yet I try to foist it upon my readers with absolute certainty. So in a sense, I’m being dishonest with them, or at least disingenuous. Shame on me.
In contrast, in The Mongoliad, we’ve engaged in creating what in theatre is called “the willing suspension of disbelief.” This is one of the most magical practices ordinary mortals can participate in.
When we walk into a theatre, we already know we are about to see a fantasy, a spectacle. When somebody dies on stage, we know the actor did not really die, and yet the character’s death moves us. We agree to believe that five seconds of real-time darkness implies five minutes, or five years, or five centuries, of time passing; whatever the story requires us to believe. A trap door is opened and we all agree it is a grave dug in the earth. The Prologue in Shakespeare’s Henry V, admitting from the top that nobody can literally stage a battle inside a theatre, asks the audience to play along: “Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them, printing their proud hooves i’ the receiving earth.” And the audience does. There is a delightful understanding between the creators and their audience: we all know this is invented, so we are free to give ourselves over to being enthralled with it, without regard for plausibility.
I became especially aware of this while writing I, Iago, which is a retelling of the play Othello. Shakespeare took broad poetic license in his sculpting of time and place in that play, a poetic license that works effortlessly on stage, but became a real bear to grapple with in book form. So I know from experience how hard it is to work that willing suspension of disbelief into regular historical fiction. Perhaps because reading engages a more analytical part of the brain than viewing does, we tend to hold a novel up to a more intensive scrutiny than other forms of narrative.
Sci-fi and fantasy novels do not escape this scrutiny; as I said, it is defined by plausibility. Even an invented world is expected to be internally consistent, transparent, and logical. The willing suspension of disbelief is highly conditional. Break your own rules and you will hear about it, with attitude, from the readers who feel you’ve let them down.
But…add a secret history to our known world, and suddenly we as writers have the freedom usually only afforded in a theatre. It is the rare chance for a storyteller to say to the story-hearer: “Just go with me on this, okay? Don’t fret about plausibility. I have something to offer you that is much more enthralling than plausibility. I offer you something just out of reach. I offer you alchemy. I offer you a Muse of Fire.”
We read historical fiction like we read a newspaper: we want insights or opinions about things that really happened. But we read stories of secret history the way we watch a play: we want to be titillated by the possible, the what ifs, by the delicious, seductive perhaps. What could be trumps what is or was. What greater offering can a storyteller make than inviting their audience to yearn for what could be?