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?