If You’re Going to Write Historical Fiction, Get It Right

Wherein I write an article and quasi literary review and have a bit of a rant, all in one post.

Accuracy in Historical Fiction

As anyone wandering through a bookstore might notice, historical fiction is currently enjoying a moment in the spotlight. With the rise of popular TV shows such as Vikings, Outlander, and Downton Abbey, historical fiction has become even more of a hot topic than before. The public interest in historical fiction is gratifying because an understanding of history is important for us to know how we became who we are as a society. Also, I love history, and therefore everyone else should, too. An issue that often arises in historical fiction is accuracy.  As anyone who knows me is well aware, it is a huge peeve of mine when a book marketed as historical fiction is inaccurate. People, history does not need to be meddled with to make a fascinating story! If you know history, you know that. While it is not always a black and white issue, authors should have an obligation to remain as true to fact as possible. Accuracy in historical fiction is of utmost importance, yet is something that is often tampered with for the sake of telling a story.

For some people, reading historical fiction or watching historical shows may be the only exposure they get to history. If for no other reason than that, authors should have accurate research and correct facts as much as possible. Author Sarah Dunant agrees, arguing that “authors have a responsibility to not present readers with deliberately false information about a historical character or period, and to make clear how much they have invented.”1 The history itself is interesting enough on its own without altering it. Presenting it in a clear way, and making a good story of it in the process, is exactly the job of a novelist.

Having a well crafted historical novel cannot happen without detailed research. In Pillars of the Earth, for example, Henry of Anjou (later Henry II) kills Eustace, the heir to the English throne, on the battlefield.  What? In real life, Eustace died suddenly in early August 1153; some contemporary chronicles even suggest he was struck down by God for plundering churches. At nearly the same time, August 17, 1153, Eleanor of Aquitaine was giving birth to her first son by Henry. To the superstitious people of the time, it was seen as a sign from God that Henry of Anjou and Eleanor of Aquitaine were the rightful rulers of England. What an amazing coincidence! How could Henry killing Eustace in battle be more interesting than that? Presumably this was done to make it somehow more dramatic. I simply can’t agree. Stephanie Merritt argues, “A novelist has no real duty to anything except the story he or she is creating…”2 No. A thousand times no. If an author wants to write a story without any adherence to historical fact, it should be marketed as a drama or mystery or romance, not historical fiction. Merritt states, “novelists are not history teachers. It’s not our job to educate people, and if we start using words like ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’ about historical fiction – or any fiction – we’re in danger of leaching all the vigour out of it with a sense of worthiness.”3This idea should be as abhorrent to a historical novelist as it is to me. How satisfying it could be to think that one’s historical fiction is the only source of information a reader may get on an era! It should make conducting accurate research an honor, not a burden. The argument must also be made that if one cannot write a historical fiction novel without “leaching all the vigour out of it,” then perhaps the problem isn’t in sticking to the facts but rather in the skill of that author to tell a good story.

Of course some things can be difficult to pin down accurately, such as birth dates. In that case, that is what authors’ notes are for. Most historical fiction buffs are as enthusiastic about a hefty author’s note as they are about a well crafted novel. For evidence of this phenomenon, I would direct you to the blogs of Sharon Kay Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick, or Helen Hollick. Their readers love a good author’s note, myself included. Author’s notes are where possible inaccuracies, slight fudges, or places where it was necessary to fill in the blanks can be fully explained. They are of vital importance to most historical fiction novels, particularly if the book is set in the distant past where the historical record is spotty.

Some novels may have elements of fact or real events and people, but also feature things like magic or faeries. Tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood might fit in here, though those can range from purely fantasy-based stories filled with wizards and magic, to realistic portrayals of post-Roman Britain.  It is not historical fiction, though. It should rightly be called historical fantasy, and it is a legitimate genre. Novels by Juliet Marillier are wonderful examples of historical fantasy, with magic woven into a realistic fabric of ancient Irish culture with historically factual people. Her excellent Bridei Chronicles include people from historical record, such as the Druid Broichan and King Bridei (Brude). No one would ever likely classify these kinds of stories as historical fiction. Why, then, would others such as Abe Lincoln, Vampire Hunter or The Boleyn King be considered as such? In all honesty, I have not read The Boleyn King, so perhaps it isn’t fair to pick on it. But I love the Tudor era, it’s my blog, and I will if I want to. This book is described as a “what if” story – what if Anne Boleyn had lived and produced a living male child? Well, it did not happen that way. Anne didn’t have a male child. She didn’t survive. This is not history, this is Alternate Universe (AU), and AU has largely been confined to the ranks of fan fiction, rightly so. Imagine a person picking up that book and, having no other knowledge of the Tudor dynasty, carrying on thinking that is what happened. It is a violation of everything I hold dear when reading historical fiction. Even Alison Weir doesn’t approach true AU in her novels.

Merritt seems to feel that AU is acceptable if the society depicted is historically accurate. Perhaps this is because her own alter ego writes novels featuring Giordano Bruno in the role of a spy. This raises an interesting question. Where do we draw the line at requiring accurate history and making a spy out of a figure who was no such thing? Perhaps it is as Merritt suggests, that “if you are going to play fast and loose with historical fact for the sake of a good story, you’d better have done your research thoroughly if you want readers to take you seriously; only then will you have the authority to depart from those facts.”4 If the author clearly has good research and knows the era well, maybe it is tolerable to change other things. I can buy that to an extent. Or is it a matter of degree about what is changed? Making the events of Bruno’s life mesh with the imaginary story of his role as a spy is a much less egregious change than Anne Boleyn living, providing a male heir, and completely undoing the entire Elizabethan Golden Age. Granted, Laura Andersen, the author of The Boleyn King, self-describes her work as alternative history. So there is redeeming value in that. However, stating “I truly enjoyed taking the history and coming at it sideways… [and] It seemed much too impertinent to walk into [Anne Boleyn’s] mind wholesale as I would have needed to do if she had been the main character”5 seems like a way of saying, “research is hard, so I will take poetic license.” Maybe that isn’t a fair observation to make, but historical fiction authors are supposed to walk into the minds of their characters. It is rather the point for an author to try to figure out what a figure from history would have thought, or said, or how they would have reacted to an event. The differences in interpretation is where the fun comes in, and how stories about the same events can be so wildly different. They can be different and still be accurate.

Certainly, accuracy in historical fiction is not always a black and white issue. As previously mentioned, sometimes it is necessary for an author to fill in details, make educated guesses, or use anachronisms to suit modern audiences. Certainly no one would expect an author to write in Middle English if her book is set in medieval England, for example. But making these concessions to the modern audience is not the same thing as making a mistake, or telling a lie, or changing history. It is an author’s awareness of her audience. It is, however, deliberately obtuse to state that too many facts impede the story. History, and historical fiction, is not a choice between facts or story. The real challenge lies in an author’s ability to skillfully weave both together. To do anything less is to do a disservice to the very history we are trying to represent.

1Merritt, para. 1
2Ibid., para. 3
3Ibid., para. 3
4Evans, para. 1
5Ibid., para. 2, 4

REFERENCES

Evans, Mark. “Laura Anderson on the Tudors and Alternative History.” Historical Novel Society. 1997-2015. Web. February 3, 2015. <http://historicalnovelsociety.org/laura-andersen/&gt;

Forrester, James. “The Lying Art of Historical Fiction.” The Guardian. August 6, 2010. Web. February 3, 2015. < http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/06/lying-historical-fiction&gt;

Merritt, Stephanie. “How True Should Historical Fiction Be?” The Guardian. March 19, 2014. Web. February 2, 2015. <http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2014/mar/19/how-true-should-historical-fiction-be-mantel-andrew-miller-gregory&gt;

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7 thoughts on “If You’re Going to Write Historical Fiction, Get It Right

  1. I enjoyed reading your point of view on this subject, but I don’t feel the same way. I read a book for entertainment. If I want accurate history, I will read a history book. I loved Pillars of the Earth so much, it really doesn’t matter to me if Eustace didn’t die the way portrayed in the book. It doesn’t change how much I loved the story. I’ve read books by Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth Chadwick, and loved them every bit as much, but not MORE so for being more accurate. For me, an author has no duty to educated me. I can educate myself, if I so choose, or not. The author’s only duty is to write the book they dream of writing. That is a duty to themselves, and if the world enjoys it, YAY. All I actually care about while reading a story is how it whisks me away from where I actually am. It is really a labor of love for an author to write a perfectly accurate novel, and I don’t mean to take anything away from that. I just think any author who is writing a story WITH inaccuracies is expressing as much love for their story, just differently. There is nothing wrong with Alternate Universe stories, they are just stories. BUT, I do agree with you that if a book is obviously not historically accurate, such as Abe Lincoln, Vampire Slayer, it would be really sad if someone came away thinking it was a true story. If that is their only exposure to Abe Lincoln, then hopefully they will realize that there are some inaccuracies in it. LOL
    I do get the impression your biggest peeve is how the book is labeled, though. We should have two categories, like Historical Fiction for the more accurate stuff, and Not-So-Historical Fiction for the rest. 🙂 As always, a pleasure reading your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with a lot of what you said, especially about the categorization. I don’t necessarily mind if authors change things per se, but it drives me nuts if it’s passed off as factual. And agreed, people can educate themselves if they want. But reading a straight history book can be boring! I figure why not tell a fun story AND be accurate. But I know we will almost always take opposing positions on this one. 🙂

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  3. I’m with Lynn for the most part. I just enjoy the story. But…I can see how someone writing a historically inaccurate story about an era that you are very familiar with would grate. That’s why I like to read mostly SciFi and fantasy. No history, accurate or not, to consider. Actually, historical fiction sometimes piques my interest in a period of history and I want to learn more about it, like Outlander. I must have missed the mid 1700’s history class completely. I’m planning on reading some nonfiction about the founding of our country and emigration from England and Scotland during that time period. See?? Now I want to learn stuff. Geez.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You’re very mistaken with respect to alternative history. Far from being “fan fiction”,* AH has a bigger market share than traditional historical fiction (excluding romance). It has existed for as long as traditional historical fiction, too. L. Sprague de Camp, Philip K. Dick, Stephen Fry – even Nabokov and Sir Winston Churchill have written in the genre. It’s especially popular with readers who enjoy history.

    * I see no reason to be so contemptuous of fan fiction anyway – such an attitude is not just mean-spirited, it’s also counterproductive. Do you know how few writers these days don’t have a background in writing fan fiction? Do you realize how many of the greats, up to and including Austen and the Brontës, did?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments, Blurgle! I wasn’t actually commenting on the popularity of the genre. Clearly it is popular. My issue is that I feel historical fiction should be, well, historical. Otherwise it ought to be just drama or mystery, etc, as I mentioned.

      I’m not at all contemptuous of fan fiction. I’ve read lots of really good fan fic.

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  5. I would probably agree with you that various novels marketed as historical fiction should have maybe more specific categorization. I know we completely disagree here (and that’s okay!), but I don’t really like history at all. IT doesn’t generally interest me in the slightest, and I would prefer to read almost anything else.

    BUT, if I’m going to learn about history then I’d like to do it in the form of a good novel or movie, and then yes, I would like it to be more historically accurate so I’m learning the real facts and not something someone has made up just to make the story more juicy. Reading history out of textbooks is so incredibly dry that having it exist in the form of fiction makes it much more interesting and palatable. Of course we learned absolutely nothing but Canadian history from grade school all the way to grade 11 whence i dropped it, so I never learned anything about anywhere but here and Canada is SO boring. We’re so young we haven’t really done anything interesting yet. *lol*

    I would agree that historical fiction that is merely partly accurate could be well labeled as fan fiction. How is that different from the fan fiction that I write? I pick a universe and characters I like, base my newly made up story around what already exists but take liberties with it. Doesn’t make it a bad form of entertainment but it definitely shouldn’t be considered “accurate” for that universe. And really, some fan fiction is better than original fiction. (and often better written by people who are grammar Nazi’s like me!)

    Thanks for posting this and for getting conversation going. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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