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A New Form: Historical Fiction Is Not What It Used to Be

Students read their stories at the History Slam
Elizabeth Cowan ’17 reads from her work “An Irish Duet,” set in medieval and modern Ireland, with the help of Thomas Rocca ’17, who read footnotes from within the flow of the story.

Davidson College history students are taking their research and writing in a new direction: historical fiction, with footnotes.

This form, footnoted fiction, draws transparently and methodically on the best of both history and fiction, said William R. Kenan Professor of History John Wertheimer.

"It works above and below the footnote line," said Wertheimer, who got the idea for the class from an independent study created by Kate Legrand '15. "It's a form that doesn't really exist outside History 391, ‘Writing Historical Fiction,' but it should, because in most historical fiction, you don't know what is real and what is made up. Here, you do."

All of the material in the students' original works, including story details like settings, slang, food, modes of travel and other narrative bits, springs from students' direct research. Their fictional creative license is likewise documented, according to standard academic practice, in the footnotes.

At a "history slam" hosted by Wertheimer at the Summit Coffee Outpost, students read from their work, which included colloquial expressions and other local color from the Old World and the new. Student peers voiced each author's footnotes in flow with the story.

The readers and their works:

  • Elizabeth Cowan '17, "An Irish Duet," set in medieval and modern Ireland
  • Thomas Rocca '17, "Earth's Nearest Suburb to Hell," set in World War I-era Glasgow
  • Olivia Daniels '19, "The Veiled Face," about Great Britain's interwar abortion-reform movement
  • Bethany Kirkpatrick '19, "South of Eden," about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the era of busing

John Syme