When writing historical fiction, we are under pressure to ‘get it right,’ but how accurate is the history we are using? And what’s the difference between history and historical fiction?
Put simply, history is what actually happened in the past and historical fiction uses an historical period, setting, incident or character to frame a story.
But what if the actual history we accept as correct and true is based on historical fiction we now consider to be real history? And what if many of the original texts detailing the famous people, civilisations and wars were invented, embellished, misunderstood or just plain wrong. It would make a modern work based on that source not so much history, but fan fiction
Imagine, if you will, Donald Trump living in the fourth century and writing a history of the Roman Empire, a really good history, the best history, in fact, believe me. Apart from possibly an accurate account of the building of Hadrian’s Wall, how reliable would it be? You see what I mean?
While it’s safe to assume nothing would be going on in Trump’s head, we don’t really know what the great chroniclers of historical times had in mind as they wrote. Did they have axes to grind, revenge in mind, stars in their eyes or were they simply relaying the winning side’s version of what happened? And even if they were accurate, subsequent retellings act like Chinese whispers and we are left with glaring errors accepted as the truth.
That’s how we have Nero setting fire to Rome, climbing onto the roof of his palace and playing the Roman version of a fiddle, when in fact he was 30 miles away when the blaze started and raced back to the city to heroically lead the firefighters. Or how about Napoleon having a ‘complex’ because he was 5’2”, when, in fact, he was 5’7”, taller than the average Frenchman of his time and two inches taller than his more recent countryman, Nicolas Sarkozy. And staying in France, it is still widely accepted that Marie Antoinette said, “let them eat cake,” provoking even greater French revolutionary anger, though in fact the remark was first reported – but not accredited to her – when she was only 11 years old, more than 20 years before the storming of the Bastille (if it was indeed stormed!)
I use ‘in fact’ ironically.
It is hard enough to know what really happened in modern times when we have countless witnesses and a multitude of eye-witness accounts (the JFK assassination, 9/11 and Trump winning the Republican Presidential nomination, to name three), so how can we hope to know exactly and definitively what actually happened in history and what and who caused what happened. We have to rely on interpretive accounts, and while investigations and corroborations by historians often provide a somewhat trustworthy account of historical shenanigans, we don’t really know. It’s not much different to a modern court case when you can hear wildly different descriptions from a number of eye witnesses.
All of this is terrific news for historical fiction writers. It makes history pliable. We can bend events to our will and reinterpret them. Refute them even, if the evidence is not strong or conclusive.
We can inject our characters into the action and bring history to life through their eyes and we do not have any obligation to historical accuracy when we write our stories, because history itself is not accurate.
Yes, I did just say we have no obligation to historical accuracy, so there’s no need to go back and check.
The only obligation we have, in my opinion, is to our readers. Who, I must say, are a singularly demanding lot.
(Talk among yourselves for a second while I switch to my reader’s hat. There we go.)
When I read historical fiction I bring to it many years of acquired knowledge, no little study and while enjoying a book I actively, though subconsciously, seek out inaccuracies and errors by comparing what I think I know to the author’s descriptions. I am especially vigilant with a writer I sample for the first time. (With authors I trust completely, like Bernard Cornwell, I relax my guard and probably would not question it if he had the Vikings travel by speedboat).
Anyway, if the writer tampers with what I ‘know’ without having a very good reason, I can easily fly into a highly miffed state and put the book down rather firmly in disgust.
However, if an author can push the boundaries by bringing new insights to history or make me question what I thought I knew, or use gaps in the historic record to reconstruct events, all in a plausible fashion, I will be impressed and grateful
(Swaps hats back)
And that – in fact – is what guides my historical writing.