Monday, August 18, 2014

Veracity in Historical Fiction

In a few weeks I will be attending the Historical Novel Society 
Conference in London.  Without a doubt, the conferees will take up the question of how strictly the historical novelist must cleave to the truth of a story’s historical background.  There will be next to no agreement on this point.

Some people at the conference will say that a novelist must never stray from the truth; not even, for instance, to write a scene under the full moon, if there was only a half-moon on the specified date 1567.  I was once on a panel with a woman who began her story with a fourteen-page explanation of just how the story she was about to tell departed from even the minutest facts of the case.  These purists look down their noses upon any writer who takes any liberties whatsoever with what the history books say.

On the other end of the spectrum, are those who take whatever liberties they like.  Some even write alternate histories from the ones we all know.  Books and movies that posit a world where the Nazis won World War II or the South won the American Civil War.  Writers like these, as you can imagine, also feel no compunction whatsoever about completely changing the characters and deeds of historical figures.


I fall somewhere in between on this continuum.  Actually, I don’t see myself as a historical novelist, per se.  I am a mystery writer who sets her stories in historical backgrounds.  I know this because I feel at home, among my own tribe, when I am with mystery writers.   This is not necessarily the case when I am with historical novelists.   At HNS conferences, people walk up and ask, “What period do you write?”  “Tudor England” or “Regency England” or “Renaissance Florence” would all be good answers.  My truthful answer: “I don’t write only one time and place” draws frowns, at best, usually annoyance—both from other writers and from readers.

Being a mystery writer at heart, what is most important to me is the story.  If the story requires a night scene under a full moon, it gets it regardless of the planetary alignments at that moment, shocking as that may be to some.

History’s enigmas are what most appeal to me.   No one actually knows what happened to the Alcalde of Potosi’s vast fortune in silver that he stashed away during the King’s investigation of counterfeiting, in 1649.  Nor what happened to the national treasure of Paraguay during the War of the Triple Alliance in 1868.   City of Silver and Invisible Country offer plausible answers to both, but the stories are whodunit’s.  I knew full well while writing them that the average American would have no idea that those treasures were ever lost, much less never found.

Historians are still arguing over what role Evita played in Peron’s return to power during the most dramatic week in Argentine history.   Some say she did nothing because she was powerless until that time.  Others say she did everything, and offer as proof all the power she wielded after the fact.  I love this sort of thing and made a sideline to my story portraying her as a powerless woman who nevertheless found a way to turn the tide in Peron’s favor.

Which brings us to what people think are the rules for introducing real people into historical novels.  There are no real rules, of course.  The writer decides.  But some critics and readers will reject a work if it does not conform to what “history says” about the person.  My problem is whose history are we reading and when?  If you are over forty, you have seen the assessment of historical figures change in your lifetime.  Jimmy Carter.  Richard Nixon.  Need I say more?

I will give the last word on this to the great writer I quoted at length here a couple of weeks ago—John Fowles.  Here is a paragraph that comes a little after what I quoted then.  It answers the question about how novelists should deal with historical figures:

From The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Chapter Thirteen

“But this is preposterous?  A character is either “real” or “imaginary”?  If you think that, hypocrite lecteur, I can only smile.  You do not even think of your own past as quite real; you dress sit up, you gild it or blacken it, censor it, tinker with it. . . fictionalize it, in a word, and put it away on a shelf—your book, your romanced autobiography.  We are in flight from the real reality.  That is a basic definition of Homo sapiens.”

  The defense rests.

Annamaria – Monday

PS: I will be traveling over the next three Mondays, much of it in areas where I may not have reliable Internet access.  I will do my best to keep up with postings here. 


  1. Hi Annamaria. Great blog. Personally, I think the reader agrees to enter into the writer's world on the understanding that there will be certain rules. We accept vampires, but only if they can't take daylight, nor cross a threshold uninvited. We know there will be a certain bending of reality, but only within the confines of the framework we've set out and 'agreed' with the reader at the outset. So, although we happily accept modifications to what might have happened under the reign of Elizabeth I, if her spy master Sir Francis Walsingham obtained documents using a miniature camera, we'd throw the book at the wall.

    I hate silly mistakes in fiction, but can happily read sci-fi, or even romances -- and there's nothing more unrealistic than a perpetually happy ever after ...

    1. I have figuratively thrown books at the wall for a lot less that that, Zoe. One of my favorite books last year was "Blood of the Lamb," by Sam Cabot (SJ Rozan and Carlos Dews), which features vampires. They do go out in the daylight, but the explanation of how that got to be vampires is verisimilitude at its very best. And every detail of the city of Rome is PEFECT! Suspension of disbelief is always a whole lot easier if writers don't suspend their belief in the readers' intelligence.

  2. Until reading Zoe's comment, Annamaria, I wasn't sure what you meant by the reference to former Presidents Carter and Nixon. Now I do: "We accept vampires..." :)

    Enjoy the conference and "give 'em hell, Harry"--to raise another prez reassessed by history.

    1. Bro, reports on my travels will be forthcoming over the next few weeks. If I see Harry, I'll say hello for you! Thank you for your good wishes.

  3. Except, Zoë, even a miniature camera in the hands of Sir Francis Walsingham is perfectly fine and acceptable if the story is clearly a science fiction story about a time traveler or several other possibilities. But, yes, if the book is supposed to be a straight-forward historical, that would probably choke the trojan horse.

    AmA, great piece. The first volume of family history that I wrote I titled "Käser-KASER-Kaeser -- One Story." The 'One Story' part was intended to indicate that:
    1) This was just ONE story of the family, which excluded millions of other stories that could have been included.
    2) This was just ONE person's point of view (or telling) of the stories of the family member's.
    3) This was just one STORY, not "the truth," as it's impossible to completely capture "the truth" (whatever that is!) of ANY human activity beyond the simplistic, "Did you die today or not?" (And even then, define 'die', define 'today', etc...)

    So, IMNSHO :-), if you're writing fiction (historical or not), you're foolish to think that EVERY little detail is going to be 100% accurate to the past, present, or future (depending on your genre), nor SHOULD it be. You're writing FICTION. But, to each their own... :-)

    1. EvKA, YUP! It has to be convincing.

      On the other side of this questions, there is the point that sometimes truth is so strange that one can't put it in fiction because the reader will have too hard a time swallowing it. Fiction has to READ as real, it does not have to be real.

    2. Exactly and clearly put! It's fiction, but it has to READ as real. No other requirements (besides the use of high quality yarn).