17 March 2015


My Tuesday Talk Guest this week :
I.D. Roberts

One of my favourite literary arguments that I’ve listened to, or been involved with myself, is over history versus fiction, about how much a writer is ‘allowed’ to manipulate historical events for the benefit of their own story. How much can they get away with?

Well, provided the writer doesn’t make a real howler, then why can’t you manipulate real events to suit your story? After all, history is only created when a man writes of it. Isn’t it? And, of course, when writing Historical Fiction you can always, for example, have Hitler surviving the war and growing old in a seventeenth storey flat on some rundown housing estate on the outskirts of Moscow. 

Who’s to say he didn’t anyway? Historians? Prove it.

Yes, I’m being deliberately belligerent here, but what I’m getting at is that historians and writers have often clashed because historians, the academics, more often than not spend years, decades even, on dedicated hard research. They have compiled to the best of their knowledge the definitive guide to their chosen subject, be it Napoleon, Queen Victoria, Henry VIII, Vlad the Impaler, Florence Nightingale, or Martin Luther King. And then along comes some jumped up author who steals their favourite subject and dumps a bunch of fictional characters in the middle of their world, manipulates events to suit their story, and even go and put words in the mouths of those historical figures, too.

And worse still, these authors often sell more books than the academics ever did or ever will. The cheek of it! The total injustice!

Caesar wouldn’t have said that! Wellington wouldn’t walk in that way! Boadicea wouldn’t dream of sleeping on her front! Hitler never ate spare ribs! Moses detested salami!’ But how do they know

Ok, maybe they do about Moses, but you get my drift.

And if one can tell a good story, a believable story, then who’s to say that it’s wrong to change events slightly, to make historical figures act in certain ways, do certain things? If the reader believes it, is swept along with it, especially if what is written is grounded in truth, in recorded fact, then why not change events to suit?

Yes, the writer needs to be aware that first and foremost they are telling a story. So, for example, if a battle that I have thrown my characters into is taking place but it lasts, as many did, for tedious days on end, then I could perhaps condense it into a few explosive hours. And if I need, say, a particular regiment in a particular place for dramatic effect, then that regiment could easily be shifted over a few feet. Does it matter? They are still there, still on the battlefield. We all (authors, I mean) do it, we have to, otherwise our stories just wouldn’t work, they would lack drama and pace.

Authors are, after all, writing to entertain, not writing for academic accolades.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating revolution here, I’m not saying that, for example, you can move the D-Day landings to the Brittany coast or even further south to the Atlantic coast. They could, of course, if I was penning alternative history or fantasy like, say, Len Deighton’s SS-GB. But what I’m saying here about manipulating events slightly is that history should be treated as malleable and not as an irremovable stone. One must always be true, be respectful and protective of ones chosen era, that goes without saying, but one must also not be afraid of it.

Aside from my Kingdom Lock stories, which are set in the Middle East during the First World War, I have recently adapted my grandmother’s memoirs of her time as a trainee nurse in London during the Second World War. She’s 95 years-old now and her memory isn’t what it always was, so the facts of her own personal history and the events she lived through are somewhat blurry. And why wouldn’t they be? She was writing about events that occurred some 75 years earlier. I can’t even remember what I was doing 75 days ago. Can you? Without the aid of a diary or a journal? And even then, how much was actually true and not slightly changed? Not intentionally, but because recall can play tricks. 

Take a story told by one person that is then passed on to another, then another, then another… I’m talking good old Chinese Whispers. Most likely the story will bear little resemblance to the first person’s rendition when it reaches the tenth person. Things change, not necessarily on purpose, but because memory can play tricks, and also because one person’s skill at storytelling might be more flamboyant than another’s.

So, for my grandmother’s memoirs I had a vast amount of historical documents to refer to in order to help me put flesh onto the faded memories of that world in which she lived, worked and studied as a 21-year-old. But I still had to create conversations, I still had to move events slightly – not major historical ones, but personal ones – to add drama to fact, to add thrills and suspense to the drudgery of everyday life. Is this changing history? Not at all. It’s interpreting it.

For my Lock adventures, it is a particular historical figure’s own memoirs that I turn to for inspiration and guidance. Major General Townshend published his experiences of life in Mesopotamia during the First World War in 1922, when he was retired and living back in England. It’s a fascinating, often amusing read, for Townshend, though meticulous, fastidious and, at times, inspiring, is also a pompous popinjay and a man who historians mostly deride as a failure – he did, after all, oversee the biggest disaster in British Military History at the time when, in 1916, he surrendered Kut to the besieging Turks.

But I rather like him and although his book is full of self-gratification, as I suppose it would be – it’s his memoirs after all – it’s extremely informative and insightful as it puts me right there with him in dusty Mesopotamia and tells me how he saw events or, I should say, how he recalled events. Others, of course, whether it be in history books, in letters, or in diaries, give totally different accounts to what Townshend has said happened, and their opinions of events are often hugely contradictory. So who’s right? The man who was there? Or the man who wrote about the man who was there some fifty years later?

Can they both be right? But can’t they also both be wrong as well?

Take any story, any key event, that a number of people have witnessed or been involved in and they will all tell varying versions. So history is not the Holy Grail, the definitive answer. It is an interpretation. And more often than not an interpretation that changes from writer to writer, particularly when new evidence comes to light. History is a living, breathing creature.

Yes, many, many history books are written in a captivating, engrossing, even occasionally page-turning way, but many aren’t. Many are detailed yet ponderous tomes, fascinating, but not necessarily entertaining. And that’s not to take anything away from them, for without historians, historical fiction couldn’t exist. I truly believe that. Historians are my inspiration, my lifeblood; they are the essence of my storytelling.

As a writer you are learning all the time, not just about your craft, but also, particularly if you are producing Historical Fiction, about your chosen era. And, of course, history is changing all the time, too. For example, it has recently been announced that the plague wasn’t caused by rats at all, but by gerbils. So, does that make all those books, fact and fiction, written about the plague up until now obsolete? Not at all, they were just based on what was believed to be true at the time. And who’s to say that some other fact may not come up in ten, twenty, or thirty years that makes that new truth a falsehood, too?

Therefore, I would argue, that for authors of fiction, it’s our duty to tell a damned good yarn first and foremost. After all, history is just that, ‘His Story’, and it is, as George Orwell once said, written by the winners.

I.D. Roberts

I.D. Roberts was born in Ivanhoe near Melbourne, Australia in 1970 and moved to England when he was three. From a young age he developed an obsession with war comics, movies, Tintin and James Bond.
 At various stages in his life he has worked as a filmmaker, an industrial temp, a cinema box-office cashier, a runner, a caretaker, a football correspondent, a police line-up volunteer, a cricket commentator, a soundtrack reviewer, and a sub-editor. For the past decade he has been the film writer for the TV Times magazine. In 2012 he was signed by a literary agent.
 He holds a BA in Film from the University of Westminster and an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University. 
 His debut novel, KINGDOM LOCK, an action-adventure set during the First World War, was published in May 2014 by Allison & Busby.
 The second Kingdom Lock adventure is done, and he recently completed an adaptation of his grandmother's memoirs. It tells of her time as a trainee nurse during the Blitz, and is due to be published by Little Brown (Sphere) in August 2015. 
 He lives in rural Somerset with his wife Di and their dog, Steed. 

It’s a familiar situation, with familiar names. Yet these are not contemporary tales, but historical fiction based on fact, set in Iran and Iraq when those countries were called Persia and Mesopotamia. It is 1914 and while battles rage across Europe, three empires - the Ottoman, the German and the British - fight for dominance in the Middle East.
In the centre of this comes our hero, Kingdom Lock, a former civil engineer who now works for the British Intelligence Service known as the White Tabs. Having recently rescued Amy Townshend, the daughter of a top ranking British officer from Turkey, Lock is sent by his superior, Major Ross, to Persia. His mission: to stop a German spy from inciting rebellion and seizing control of the precious oilfields. But to complete his task, the Australian-born Lock has not only to battle resentment and enemies on his own side, but to keep one step ahead of the war raging around him. And to make matters worse, Lock has fallen in love with Amy, something her fiance will not tolerate...

Facebook : click here
Twitter: @kingdomlock

BUY the book:

"Lock is a superb character, a WW1 James Bond, if you like. Stunningly enjoyable."
Books Monthly

COMING SOON: audio CD (release due in May)

So what's your opinion? 
What is the prime importance 
for Historical Fiction - 
the Fact or the Fiction?

Leave a comment below ...


  1. What a thought provoking post. It is my belief that writers of historical fiction have an obligation to paint the past, make it come alive for the reader. To do so, at times one must simplify (like when the horrendous complexity of the English Civil War is condensed into a story of father and son on opposing sides, thereby simplifying the political landscape into tangible human tension & emotions), while staying true to the larger picture. And as to the things we don't know, we, as novelists, have the luxury of filling in the gaps as it suits our story best!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Anna, and I couldn't agree more, that writers of HF have an obligation to make the past came alive for their readers. After all, that's the fun bit, too. IDRoberts

  2. and the trick is to ensure the gaps fit together seamlessly so no one can tell where facts ends and fiction starts - even for the fantasy bits if you are writing this genre i.e myself and Anna!
    Anna's Timetravel Graham Saga is so well written that belief is easily suspended - Anna makes the unbelievable believable because her facts are so accurately depcted (and its a cracking good story series!)

  3. I agree that my role as an HF novelist is to write a terrific story. Of course I love to follow the history as exactly as I can but readers telling me I'm affecting their sleep is the goal. If I have to bend the facts I mention it in the notes, thus assuaging my own guilty pleasure!

    1. Yes, Elaine, the Historical Note at the end or the beginning of the story is a great way of justifying one's actions within!

  4. Good point about Author's Notes Elaine - I enjoy reading the notes almost as much as the story sometimes as its good to learn new facts.

  5. Sometimes the truth (or what is perceived as the truth) can get in the way of a good story - but I feel it's safest to bend 'small' truths and still, as others have said, to own up to them at the end. As a reader I love finding out, AFTER I've finished a story where the fact stopped and the fiction began. I don't like being able to see the seams while I'm reading, because that jolts me out of the story.


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