12 June 2012

Historical Fact - or Historical Fiction? Tuesday talk

There have been some interesting discussions on Facebook recently, among them, several on the Historical Novel Society’s Group Page

As an author of historical fiction I completely agree that we need to keep in mind Historical Integrity - facts must be facts (unless you are writing historical fantasy or alternative history of course – and I see no reason to condemn these genres, they are not meant to be taken seriously, they are interesting, creative, and they are fun. To ridicule them is bigoted snobbery. )
But there is one point where I agree with some authors / readers: "if you want fact, read a non-fiction." Especially if you are researching for your own novel. Fiction is not the place to find fact. The clue is in the word “fiction”.
It is a story. A made-up tale.

I have a concern that too many authors are now concentrating too much on the “fact” and not enough on the story – creating Historical ‘Faction’. Especially new, potential authors who are not yet published - all those proclaiming on FB et al "I am writing a _real_ historical fiction novel, telling the real story.”
We can’t possibly know the reality, even from primary sources. (i.e if we followed Queen Emma’s biography written in the mid 1030’s there is no reference whatsoever to her 1st husband, Æthelred.)

I do worry that authors who make one personal choice diversion for their protagonist will subsequently get blasted to smithereens on social networks for being inaccurate:  Stephen of Galacia (I made the name up to avoid controversy) had black hair and a lisp, whereas everyone knows he had red hair and a stutter. (Even though there is absolutely no reference to this detail in any contemporary work, so why shouldn’t the author make it up?)

There have been some very public rows recently over several such examples; was X a good, bad, or misjudged man? Was Y an outright b*gger, or a saint? And woe betide if you upset his or her supporters by straying from their personal ideal belief!

 I get this a lot for my portrayal of King Arthur: I deliberately set him in post-Roman Britain and made him pagan, not Christian because it felt more fitting for the period, for a committed soldier – and to get away from the traditional image of him being a Christian, do-good king. In consequence, I have been condemned several times for “straying from the truth”.
Aw, come on! We can’t even prove that Arthur actually existed - let alone what religion he followed! I describe my novels as “What might have really happened”.
Emphasis on the word might.

If writing Historical Fiction means you have to become an academic with a degree in History (to satisfy those academics who have missed the point of what historical fiction is  – popular fiction – and won’t touch it because it’s all nonsense (and horror of horrors, probably a bodice ripper to boot) then I think the whole point of historical fiction is being lost. It is Fiction, it is not real, it is not intended as a secondary source non-fiction research book. Non-Fiction is the fact; fiction is the made-up bit.

Does it matter if the moon was full or new on the night after Anne Boleyn died? Does it matter if the Vikings attacked London when the Thames was in flood? Not necessarily... On the other hand, does it matter that it did not rain on October 14th 1066 at a certain Battle near Hastings? Yes it does matter because had it rained the outcome of the Norman Conquest would probably have been completely different. (Had it rained, the Normans would probably have never made it up the hill three times, and the English, therefore, would have won.)

However, a good novel can be completely ruined by the author making dreadful blunders. A Roman sitting huddled beneath Hadrian’s Wall eating his rabbit and potato soup? Instant switch-off because these two enormous errors make the rest of the story unbelievable. Claiming in a novel that Richard III was a demonic hunchback will probably lose you readers (although the inaccuracy doesn’t seem to have affected Shakespeare too much.)

A novel portraying William the Conqueror as a just, likeable man would send me running to the bathroom – but equally, my own portrayal of King Harold II being a just, likeable man may send Bill’s supporters running in the same direction. It is all subjective you see, up to the author to write what she/he wants to write. And it would be a dull world if we all had to write factually, and not permitted to use our own creatively,
I personally prefer good, well structured, well written, well researched historical novels that have a cracking good story,  but are written with A Duty Of Care and Integrity to fact.

I am not so keen on the present unpleasant trend for the public pillorying of authors when the not necessarily essential, or fictional, interpretation of the ‘facts’ go awry.

Having said this, if the story is just a story it is up to the author to make it quite clear she/he is writing fiction and not fact, especially if he/she makes a song and dance about her/his various degrees in historical academic research.
(New, potential authors beware – until your novel is published and others have had a chance to read/review it, maybe it might be best to not shout quite so loud about ‘mine will only have the facts’. There will be plenty of people/trolls out there looking forward to joyfully hang, draw and quarter you.)

Imagination and creativity regarding characterisation, plot and story should be embraced by all enthusiastic writers and readers of historical fiction. While individual interpretation of the “facts” should not be vociferously and often (sadly), somewhat rudely, denigrated by those with an opposing view to that of the author.

Perhaps though,  Integrity To Detail should be the key words adopted by all existing and potential Historical Fiction writers?


  1. Agree with you Helen about the nastiness but if someone posts something in a forum and an encourages a healthy debate and someone posts an opposing view, its not trolling, its debating. Trolls are those who drop in on people's threads with an opposing view or inflammatory remarks to stir things up,get people arguing with each other and then they dissappear. I think the Troll thing is over used sometimes and there is a clear difference as to what trolling is.
    An Internet troll, or simply troll in Internet slang, is someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, irrelevant or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum or chat room, with the primary intent of provoking other users into an emotional response or to generally disrupt normal on-topic discussion.

    I wouldnt say that people debating on forums are trolls as the above definition describes.

    But, yes I agree there has been a lot of nastiness lately and people need to remember everyone has a right air their opinion about subjects and we may not like what people believe but theres no need to be nasty when someone says something that is hard to accept.

    Also, i am of the opinion that fiction in history is fine as long as people state clearly in their author's note or are prepared to answer questions about their depiction of the facts

    Thanks Helen for your thoguhts on what has been a very combustive time!


    Thanks Helen for your thoughts

  2. I must admit I tend to be in the getting the facts as right as possible camp, but as it ties i with my non-fiction blogs etc on the same subject, it's probably a different matter. However, it is easy to get overwhelmed by research when writing the fiction and knowing what to put in and what to leave out can be a problem (can't see wood for trees sort of thing). There is a fine art to putting the correct detail in the fiction without info-dumping, and let both story and fact glide together in a stream of easily read narrative.

    I also have no problems with fictional writers whose grip of historical detail can be a bit hazy at times but nonetheless produce a ripping good story (unless they are stating the history as fact of course). I'm thinking here of Karen Maitland: there are some details in her books I would raise a historical eyebrow at, but they are not serious ones and the book was un-putdownable.

    I think it is down to the author as to how factual they want to be in their histfic, but I do agree that they should be prepared to back up anything they claim as fact with an author's note or, as you say, be willing to answer questions. Whether we like it or not, the general reading public will often take things they read (whether in newspaper or book) as true. That is where our integrity, as authors, is important.

  3. Yes I agree with you Paula - debating is one thing, trolling is another, but there is starting to be a fine line between the two when "debate" becomes unpleasant nastiness because one or more people disagree with one or more other people.
    And yes, as I said, I think authors need to have integrity concerning the facts when writing HF - and the Author's note should be carefully written to outline any facts from any fiction - all I'm saying is, I'm concerned that an author writing a darn good _story_ lives in fear of being trashed because it is a story and not accurate fact. The author who makes out that it is fact, though, perhaps deserves objections.

    Thanks for commenting Jules - I agree.

  4. I like nothing better than a good "debate" but it must be kept rational and courteous, otherwise I am out.
    I love to read history but I love it even more when a writer takes a bit of history and turns it into a wonderful tale. I feel you do need to keep to a timeline but the rest is up to a keen imagination. Tell me a story, make me cry or fall in love- the history of Henry the VIII can't do that!

  5. Momma was thinking - I so agree!

  6. Helen,
    As I finish my debut and shine it up to send out, I'm quaking in my boots over this fact vs. fiction debate. I spent a great deal of time researching and yet, at the end of the day, I prefer a great story to a fact-driven novel.

    I really love your points about being mindful of differing tastes and opinions and not bashing others just because it isn't your preferred style.

    Great post. :)

  7. What I dislike is an author claiming that their book is a *biography* of a historical figure, when it's actually a mix of fiction and fact. "Biography" implies non-fiction, and that facts can be sourced. Authors who add their own suppositions and "it's not beyond the realm of possibility that..." statements should just 'fess up with the caveat that it's fiction for entertainment purposes.

    And yes, when my novel is complete, it will have a hundred-fold more facts than the 1994 "biography" of my protagonist which promoted romantic crap that had been disproved 40 years before. I feel a huge responsibility, even with my FICTION, to be as honest as possible because there will be readers who will someday quote my fiction as fact in their genealogy pages... oy. I can't help that except to include an author's note. I'm writing about real people (heroes and villains) and events, and I respect them--and all their descendants and admirers. My next book will be total fiction, so I won't face that problem.

  8. I think that if you've got a brilliant idea for a story but your stroy doesnt fit the facts or is way off beam, then make your protagonist fictional, you cannot go wrong then


  9. I agree with Paula Lofting's last comment. That's how I tend to approach my novels. My main characters are fictional, yet they occasionally meet 'real' people. And for those occasions, I have to be accurate as you can't just shift a king to York if he's recorded to have been in Winchester on that day.

    A historical fiction author should definitely also research the way of life in general, because if you make up stuff (like your potato soup, Helen), it trips you up. If you're unsure, leave it out rather than guess.

    As a reader, I prefer fiction to faction. I recently reviewed a historical novel which, in my view, was overloaded with historical facts. Yes, we need to know what happened, as the main character was a well-known historical figure, but I'd rather 'experience' such events through the eyes of the character than have it 'info-dumped' into the story.

    Great post, Helen!

  10. Thanks for all the responses - I think the consensus seems to be that it is fine to make things up - as long as you stick to the facts! LOL


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