What is historical fiction?

So many people―especially family members―who have read my new historical novel, Papa’s Shoes: A Polish shoemaker and his family settle in small-town America, have asked how much of it is true, I’ve written the piece below to hopefully provide a coherent answer.  A simple answer is there is a little of both in my novel. However, even though the character’s were  inspired by real people and real events, I have audaciously fictionalized their lives.

Fact vs Fiction:

What in my novel, Papa’s Shoes, Is True and What Is Fiction?

by Madeline Sharples

The characters in Papa’s Shoes are fictional though they were inspired by real people in my family. However, the period of time when they lived and locations where they lived are derived from real historical data. So, in my mind, there is a very fine line between fact and fiction―it is definitely not one or the other.

With that I think I’ve complied to some rules of historical fiction that I’ve recently read: “Historical fiction is a literary genre that reconstructs past events in fictional stories. Common characteristics of this writing genre are the inclusion of historical events or historical people, invented scenes and dialogue, as well as authentic and believable details, characters made up of real or imaginary individuals, and depictions of fictional characters in documented historical situations”

For example, in my novel one of the characters, Ira Schuman, was inspired by my grandfather, a shoemaker, on my father’s side who emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. He and his wife lost three of their four boys to a simple illness, had another child―girl―to make up for their dead sons, and settled in a small-town downstate Illinois called Danville. The immigration story, where they settled, and the makeup of their family are true. However, their daily life as depicted in the book is totally made up. There was no way for me to know whether or not they had a good marriage, what they talked about, what they ate, how they adjusted to living in America, who their friends were. In the book, I decided that Ira would have a long-time affair that he lied about all the time. My grandfather didn’t do that, at least as far as I know.

The same goes for many other characters in the book. They were inspired by real characters, but their daily comings and goings in Papa’s Shoes are entirely and audaciously fictionalized.

I first became interested in writing Papa’s Shoes, while my husband was writing our family history. He derived that history from personal interviews with older family members and written material by others. I was particularly intrigued with what my aunt―my father’s sister―wrote when she was in her eighties about her life as a young girl. She wrote a whole page describing her friendship―as she called it―with a young gentile teacher named Merrill Faulk. He would pick her up at her family home and take her to school plays and concerts and then out for a bite afterward. She also wrote that her brother (my father) objected so strongly that he got the family to move to Chicago to get her away from this man who was not marriage material for an Orthodox Jewish young woman. And that she still even remembered his name and could describe his looks and the way he dressed after 64 years made me think she must have still carried a torch for him. While in real life she met and married a nice Jewish man, had two children, and lived the rest of her life in Chicago, I decided to write this book and get her together with her true love.

But as usual I made some changes. To be politically correct for our times I turned the teacher into a student at a local college who directed her in her senior class play. I also sent her off to Chicago to live on her own in a women’s boarding house with the aim of giving her more freedom from her family.

Besides using some of the material written by my relatives and what I knew about my family history, I did other research. I had two wonderful picture books with photos of the old shtetl life, and I developed scenes from then―for example, I described a photo of children pumping water out of huge old pump situated in the shtetl square, a photo of a crowd of wagons parked at the Farmer’s Market, and a photo of a shoemaker working while hunched over a fairly low table with all his equipment on it. I also used the internet to research the history of World War I, the flapper era and its interesting language, the style of clothing for the time I wrote about, and what the Polish shtetl, Danville Illinois, landing at Ellis Island, and other locations looked like. For one scene I described of the Art Institute in Chicago at length―a place I’ve been to many times.

Another resource was a wonderful book that my mother gave my husband, Bob, when we first got married called, The Joy of Yiddish. It was my guide to the Yiddish words I used in Papa’s Shoes and in the glossary of these words that appears at the end of the book.

Juggling fact and fiction made writing Papa’s Shoes quite a challenge. And as much as I’ve sorted it out for you here, I’m sure you’ll ask yourselves many times as you read, Was that true? Was that true? I hope you’ll let me know.


And if you haven’t yet read Papa’s Shoes, it is available in print and as an ebook on AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound.

If you’ve already read it, please post your review over at Amazon. Good reviews help boost sales. All authors love receiving lots of stars for their good books.


  1. Fascinating blend in your book. I’m glad you gave your aunt a happy ending–nothing sexual intended.

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